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Over the last decade, scientific studies have linked the use of antidepressants during pregnancy with birth defects, including heart, limb, cranial, abdominal, and neural tube defects. Many parents have filed lawsuits against manufacturers of these products, claiming they were not provided with adequate warnings of the risks before taking the drugs.

Now, a recent study has found a link between the use of so-called “selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI)” antidepressants during pregnancy and autism.

Study Finds Link Between Autism and Anti-Depressants

For the study, researchers evaluated 966 mother-and-child pairs from the Childhood Autism Risks from Genetics and the Environment (CHARGE) Study. They were looking for any association between the use of antidepressants during pregnancy and the development of autism spectrum disorders and other developmental delays.

Results showed the following:

• Among boys, prenatal SSRI exposure was nearly 3 times as likely in children with autism as those with normal development.
• The strongest association occurred with first-trimester exposure.
• Boys with other developmental delays were also more likely to have been born to women who had taken SSRIs during pregnancy. In this case, the association was strongest with third-trimester exposure.

Researchers concluded that in boys, prenatal exposure to SSRI antidepressants may increase susceptibility to autism or other developmental delays. (Since the study included mostly boys, it was not clear whether the risk would be similar for girls.)

Conflicting Results in Other Studies

Authors of the study cautioned that it’s still unclear whether the antidepressants cause autism. A 2013 study, for instance, found conflicting results. Danish researchers evaluated all children born alive in Denmark between 1996 and 2006, for a total of over 668,000 children. They found out which mothers used antidepressants during pregnancies, and which children developed autism. After analyzing all the data, they found no link between the two.

Previous studies have found a link between parental depression and autism in children. Dr. Andrew W. Zimmerman, lead author of the more recent study, noted that it is possible that his study’s results could be masking the association between maternal depression and autism. He noted that more research is needed to determine the answers.

More Evidence Supporting a Link

There is more evidence supporting the potential anti-depressant/autism link, however. Research published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in 2013 reported that in utero exposure to both SSRI and non-selective monoamine reuptake inhibitors was associated with an increased risk of autism spectrum disorders.

For this study, Swedish researchers looked at over 4,400 cases of autism disorder matched with over 43,000 controls, and found that women who took antidepressants during their pregnancies were about twice as likely to have a child that would be diagnosed with autism.

An earlier study published in 2011 found similar results, suggesting that children exposed to SSRIs in utero, particularly during the first trimester, had a higher risk of autism spectrum disorders.

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