Prenatal Antidepressant Use Doesn’t Increase Autism Risk, Study Says

Contrary to previous findings, new research shows no link between medication and risk.

Prenatal antidepressant use is not associated with an increased risk of autism, according to a new study from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH).

Although autism is diagnosed more frequently in children born to mothers who use this type of medication during pregnancy, researchers say the increased risk reported by other studies is “no longer statistically significant” when considering a mother’s level of depression. In fact, researchers believe these findings, recently published online in Molecular Psychiatry, suggest that the risk is linked more to the incidence of depression itself, not the medication for it.

To conduct this study, MGH researchers analyzed electronic health records for nearly 1,400 children born at MGH, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Newton-Wellesley Hospital who were diagnosed with a pervasive developmental disorder such as autism between 1997 and 2010. Researchers also reviewed health records for each child’s mother to check for diagnosis and treatment of depression or other mental illnesses.

According to an MGH report:

While prenatal exposure to antidepressants did increase the risk for either condition, in the autism-focused comparison, adjusting for factors indicating more severe maternal depression reduced the strength of that association to an insignificant level.  Taking antidepressants with stronger action in the serotonin pathway, which has been suspected of contributing to a possible autism risk, did not increase the incidence of the disorder.  In addition, the children of mothers who took a serotonin-targeting non-antidepressant drug for severe morning sickness had no increased autism incidence.  Prescriptions for antipsychotic drugs sometimes used to treat severe, treatment-resistant depression, as well as psychotic disorders, did appear to increase the risk for autism.

Roy Perlis, the study’s senior author, said in the report that he hopes the findings will reassure worried parents about the safety of antidepressants.

“We know that untreated depression can pose serious health risks to both a mother and child,” Perlis said. “It’s important that women being treated with antidepressants who become pregnant, or who are thinking about becoming pregnant, know that these medications will not increase their child’s risk of autism.”