New study links SSRIs to developmental disorders, autism

Studies helped persuade doctors that treating depression in pregnant women was important to the well-being of both the mother and the fetus. As a result, antidepressant use during pregnancy increased. But new research shows that treatment with certain antidepressants just before and just after delivery may actually negatively impact the baby’s brain circuitry.

The new study, conducted by researchers with the University of Mississippi Medical Center, focused on the pre- and postnatal effects of laboratory rats after exposure to the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) citalopram, known by the brand name Celexa. The study results backed up findings of recent research that linked SSRI use during pregnancy to developmental disorders such as autistic spectrum disorders. Researchers also noted significant changes in brain development.

SSRIs are among the most prescribed medication in the United States and include brand names such as Celexa, Paxil, Zoloft, Lexapro and Prozac. There have been few studies to determine the safety of SSRIs during pregnancy, but new studies are shedding light into the dangers.

A recent study showed a definite risk of birth defects – including heart, brain and spinal cord defects – with the use of Paxil during pregnancy, which resulted in stronger warnings on the drug’s label and it being classified as a Category D pregnancy drug. Newer studies, such as that conducted by the University of Mississippi, are calling into question the safety of all other SSRIs.

Ultimately, the authors of the University of Mississippi study noted that the study stresses the importance of balanced serotonin levels, particularly during fetal development. “These findings indicate … that fetal/infant exposure to SSRIs should be examined in humans, particularly those with developmental dysfunction, such as autism.”

In a statement to the press, Dr. Thomas R. Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, said of this latest research, “These studies will help to balance the mental health needs of pregnant mothers with possible increased risk to their offspring.”