Study Finds No Link Between Antidepressants and Autism

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Taking antidepressants during pregnancy doesn’t raise the risk of autism later in the life of a child, but previous mental illness in the mother could be an implication.

A new study appearing in JAMA Pediatrics, for which French researchers conducted a meta-analysis on previous literature on maternal health and the incidence of autism, suggests an association between autism risk and antidepressant use during pregnancy. 

Credit: Lis Ferla/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

But it’s not the drugs that are possibly increasing autism risk, report the study authors. Instead, the risk appears to be tied to a mother’s history of psychiatric disorders that are “in treatment before pregnancy rather than antenatal exposure to antidepressants,” write the authors.

A second study in JAMA that assessed more than 35,000 births came to the same conclusion, finding that mothers’ use of antidepressants “was not associated with autism spectrum disorder in their children.”

The second study, conducted by researchers at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, challenges previous research that has shown a link between antidepressant drugs and autism risk. While the study found that 2 percent of children whose mothers took antidepressants developed autism, compared to 1 percent of children whose mothers didn’t take the drugs, the researchers believe they have appropriately stratified the data to show that other factors may be at play.

Related: Complications During Pregnancy May Increase Autism Risk in Children

“This study shows why careful analysis is so important for complex issues like the link between antidepressants and autism,” said Dr. Simone Vigod, an Adjunct Scientist at Women’s College Hospital. “Autism risk is related to many genetic and environmental factors and our research aims to better understand the associations.”

The researchers adjusted their statistical analysis “to account for other factors that could have explained the risk for autism” other than antidepressants, such as other health issues, procedures or prescription use. After factoring in alternative potential causes, the study authors report that the one-percent gulf they found “was no longer significantly different.”

Credit: Marcelo Cantarela Junior/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Yet the researchers believe that the use of antidepressants may be a cautionary sign that other high-risk factors, such as mental illness, are present.

“The findings suggest that previous studies might have been observing a relationship between an underlying factor associated with autism, and not antidepressant use during pregnancy. For example, depression and other psychiatric disorders share underlying genetic factors with autism,” noted the study authors in a statement.

The study from the French researchers calls for additional study into the complex role of mental illness and autism risk.

“Future studies, comprising an assessment of diagnoses, severity of illness and treatments at different stages in pregnancy and substance abuse, are needed and could help disentangle the role of the mother’s psychiatric condition and psychotropic drug use in the risk for [autism],” conclude the study authors.

Related: Happiness May Be Age-Related

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that one in 68 children is affected by a condition that falls along the autism spectrum, and those rates have been rising over the past two decades. Children with other developmental, genetic or psychiatric disorders are more likely to develop autism than the standard population, according to the CDC.

Women suffering from mental illness may face a difficult decision when they become pregnant, but the new studies should help relieve any concerns about taking drugs, according to Dr. Vigod.

“The implication of our findings for pregnant women with depression is that taking antidepressants during their pregnancy does not increase the risk that their children will develop autism,” said Dr. Vigod.

Richard Scott
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.