When used during pregnancy, antidepressant drugs known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may increase the risk of neurodevelopmental disorders.1 The finding came from University of Virginia School of Medicine researchers, in a study supported by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
During pregnancy, everything from malnutrition, obesity and infections to mental health conditions may affect fetal development. Autoimmune conditions and exposure to pollutants during pregnancy are known to alter neurodevelopment, while stress and depression in a pregnant women may also increase the risk of psychiatric conditions in her children.2
So it’s not a stretch that exposure to medications in utero could also lead to lifelong neurodevelopmental changes, including those linked to autism.
Rates of autism have been steadily climbing for decades, rising more than 150% in the last 20 years. While 1 in 150 children was diagnosed with autism in 2000, this rose to 1 in 54 (among 8-year-olds) in 2016.3 In 2020, 1 in 30, or 3.49%, of children ages 3 to 17 were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).4
What’s driving this change is the subject of intense debate, but the research, published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, suggests antidepressant drugs during pregnancy may play a role. The finding could have major implications for public health, considering that among pregnant women using antidepressants, 80% are prescribed SSRIs.5
The animal study revealed SSRIs may interact with inflammation in the mother’s body, producing a reaction that affects the maternal-fetal interface (MFI), which includes the decidua (a mucous membrane lining the uterus) and placenta, and ultimately the fetus’ developing brain.