Posted by Claudia Grazioso on July 21, 2011
In retrospect it seems heartbreakingly obvious: first there was the wave of antidepressants. It seems like within only a few years, Prozac, Zoloft and other SSRIs were in everybody’s bathroom cabinet, and clinical depression was a thing of the past. Once a cause of endless misery to so many Americans, it was now gone, thanks to these medications. But then a few years later, there seemed to be a spike in autism. And suddenly everyone seemed to be having their children tested, and so many children were found to be “on the spectrum.” Now comes the first study that has linked maternal use of SSRIs to an increased risk in autism.
Of course, autism is very complex, and there are probably many reasons for the spike in autism diagnoses — including environmental issues, genetic issues and maybe even over-diagnosing. But the recently-published studies headed up by Kaiser Permanente have revealed some disturbing findings about the role SSRI drugs might play in autism.
What exactly did this study find? According to researchers, children whose mothers took SSRI drugs within a year before delivering were twice as likely to have an autism spectrum disorder. That risk almost doubled when the child was exposed to SSRI drugs during the first trimester of pregnancy. Researchers estimate that approximately two percent of children with autism born in the late 1990s can be attributed to maternal use of anti-depressants during pregnancy. And because SSRI use has become so commonplace and accepted during pregnancy, the percentage of children affected by autism because of these drugs today is probably even higher.
How exactly are SSRIs thought to affect the developing baby? Again, in hindsight it is frustrating that this wasn’t considered earlier. People with autism frequently have abnormal levels of serotonin in their brains. Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors allow the brain access to more serotonin. Since SSRIs drugs do cross the placenta during pregnancy, it’s being theorized that they are having an impact on the baby’s developing serotonin system.
Doctors are quick to point out that this study does not prove a causal link between SSRIs and autism, and certainly many children have been exposed in utero and the vast majority are just fine. The problem is you never know which child might be impacted and this is something to consider and discuss with your doctor if you are pregnant, worried about autism and taking SSRIs.