A new study, published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, has found that the use of antidepressant drugs during pregnancy can dramatically increase the chances of the child developing autism.

The study, conducted at the University of Montreal, reviewed data on 145,456 pregnancies, drawn from the Quebec Pregnancy Cohort, of which provided a wealth of data regarding the medical histories of the children involved, up to the age of ten. While a large number of factors were reviewed in the study, one statistic stood out: the use of antidepressants during the latter two trimesters of pregnancy increased the chances of a child developing autism by 87%, over those that were diagnosed with the condition, but who’s mothers had not been prescribed antidepressants.

This finding does not mean that taking antidepressants during pregnancy is the sole cause of autism: “The variety of causes of autism remain unclear, but studies have shown that both genetics and environment can play a role,” explains study author Professor Anick Bérard. These other factors, such as genetics, environmental conditions and economic concerns are still considered to be contributors to the condition. However, the role of antidepressants, in particular Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI) drugs, may exacerbate the problem dramatically.

“It is biologically plausible that anti-depressants are causing autism if used at the time of brain development in the womb, as serotonin is involved in numerous pre- and postnatal developmental processes, including cell division, the migration of neuros, cell differentiation and synaptogenesis – the creation of links between brain cells,” Prof. Bérard hypothosizes. “Some classes of anti-depressants work by inhibiting serotonin (SSRIs and some other antidepressant classes), which will have a negative impact on the ability of the brain to fully develop and adapt in-utero.”

This finding may point out a problem for future generations: the World Health Organization warns that depression is likely to become the second leading cause of death by 2020, of which will prompt an increase in the use of antidepressant drugs. The study found that six to ten percent of pregnant women are being treated with anti depressants. 

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