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A major new study released Monday finds that pregnant woman taking antidepressants are significantly at risk for giving birth to children with autism – especially if the baby is a boy.

The study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, is titled “Prenatal SSRI Use and Offspring With Autism Spectrum Disorder or Developmental Delay,” and was conducted by researchers from Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, and the Department of Public Health Sciences at UC Davis. It was published in “Pediatrics,” the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Read entire study here (pdf).

Consistent with most previous human and animal studies on the question, researchers concluded in this latest study that so-called SSRI antidepressants (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) – including virtually all major antidepressant brands, like Prozac, Paxil, Luvox, Zoloft and Celexa – appear to constitute a significant risk factor for autism spectrum disorders, or ASDs, particularly in male children.

The reported link between antidepressant use and autism is an urgent concern because both trends have skyrocketed in recent years, starting at about the same time:

According to the latest statistics from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 68 American children now has some form of autism.

At the same time, 11 percent of all Americans 12-and-over are taking SSRI antidepressants, including an astonishing 23 percent – almost one in four – of women in their 40s and 50s, and between 7 and 13 percent of all pregnant women in the U.S.

Noting that “Prenatal SSRI use was recently associated with autism,” the researchers, echoing earlier studies, write, “Serotonin is critical in early brain development, creating concerns regarding prenatal exposure to factors influencing serotonin levels, like [SSRIs].”

The investigators looked for associations between prenatal antidepressant use and the likelihood of autism spectrum disorders, as well as other developmental delays, in children from a group of 966 mother-child pairs, who had been enrolled in the Childhood Autism Risks from Genetics and the Environment, or CHARGE, study.

The results, while confirming previous research, also arrived at an eye-opening new conclusion: The SSRI-autism risk appears to be much greater with boys.

Specifically, the research team determined that male children with autism disorders were almost three times as likely to have experienced prenatal exposure to antidepressants, when compared with boys with normal development. The finding regarding autistic boys was even more pronounced if their exposure to SSRIs occurred during the first trimester of pregnancy, when the developing child’s brain is considered most vulnerable.

To clearly explain the real-world implications of this new research, WND spoke to Adam C. Urato, M.D., a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at Tufts Medical Center in Boston and MetroWest Medical Center in Framingham, Mass.

“What is interesting about this study is that they analyzed the effects in boys and girls separately and found that it was the boys who had increased risk of autism spectrum disorder and developmental delays,” Urato told WND. “This finding is exactly what several of the animal studies have predicted – that male offspring have more neurobehavioral injury when exposed to SSRIs during development.”

Urato also makes the point that the reported risk was not small, but very significant: “For autism spectrum disorder in boys, first trimester SSRI exposure was associated with more than a 300 percent increased risk (OR 3.22). For developmental delay (DD) third-trimester SSRI exposure was associated with almost a 500 percent increased risk (OR 4.98).”

Summarizing the research to date, Urato said: “This paper adds to the mounting evidence from animal and human studies that the SSRI antidepressants when used in pregnancy are associated with neurobehavioral changes like autism and developmental delay in the exposed children. These antidepressant drugs are chemical compounds and we need to keep that in mind. From thalidomide to DES to cigarettes, history has taught us that exposing pregnant women to potentially toxic chemicals can lead to disastrous results.”

So, what should pregnant women experiencing depression do?

“Depressed pregnant women should not be ignored,” Urato said. “They need good treatment and care, but the key issue is how to treat them.”

For instance, there is a great deal of scientific evidence, notes Urato, that “non-drug approaches to depression, such as psychotherapy and exercise, are as good or better for the treatment of depression in many women. This fact, along with all of the pregnancy complications associated with SSRIs (for example, miscarriage, birth defects, preterm birth, and long-term problems like autism) should lead us to prioritize and emphasize the non-drug approaches to depression as a first-line approach.”

Read WND’s previous, in-depth coverage of all previous studies: “Research confirms antidepressant-autism link”

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