Although SSRIs assist in improving depressive symptoms, they’re associated with a wide range of side effects, including several birth defects.
Past studies have found a link between autism and SSRI exposure in the womb, with another recently finding a similar correlation. Published in Pediatrics on April 14, the study revealed that boys with autism are three times as likely as typically-developing children to have been exposed to SSRIs.
While researchers are careful to note the findings aren’t a direct cause and effect, medications like Zoloft and Prozac, when taken by the mother during pregnancy, increase a fetus’ serotonin levels. Researchers, in examining 966 mother-child pairs, discovered one in three children with autism had higher serotonin levels, which may have resulted in developing abnormal brain circuitry.
Out of the group, 3.9 percent of the typically-developing children had been exposed to SSRIs, compared to 5.9 percent of children with autism. A third group – those with developmental delays – saw 5.2 percent exposed.
However, simply telling doctors to hold off prescribing antidepressants to expectant mothers isn’t a simple solution; depression, as well, has negative effects on a child’s development.
According to Dr. Eric Hollander, director of the autism and obsessive-compulsive disorder program at Montefiore Medical Center, in New York City: “This study suggests that there are some risks associated with SSRI exposure and that the risk is higher in boys. They [the study authors] also found the risk is highest with exposure during the first trimester when early brain development is occurring.”
Aside from autism spectrum disorders, SSRI use during pregnancy has been correlated with the following birth defects:
Persistent pulmonary hypertension
Neonatal abstinence syndrome
Heart and lung abnormalities
Septal defects, including cleft lips or palates
Cardiac defects, including tetralogy of fallot or a hypoplastic left or right heart.