PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Could autism be related to certain drug exposures during pregnancy?

Autism is a syndrome marked by a range of altered communication, language and social interaction, and certain patterns of interests and behaviors. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 1 in 70 children are on the autism spectrum.

Researchers in Canada looked at 11 years of birth histories, autism diagnoses and the mothers’ antidepressant records.

Use of these medications, especially a class called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors — also called SSRIs, in the second and third trimesters was associated with an 87 percent increased risk of autism spectrum disorder.

“The estimates are that maybe 10 percent of pregnant patients are affected by clinical depression,” says West Penn Hospital’s Dr. Paul Weinbaum, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist. “The use of SSRIs has been very helpful. The side effect profile is pretty favorable with most of these drugs; people can be helped with low doses in most cases.”

He sees a number of problems with this study.

The pharmacist researchers correlated filled prescriptions to prenatal exposure to antidepressants.

“Just because someone fills a prescription doesn’t mean they take the medicine,” Dr. Weinbaum points out.

Also the researchers did not equalize factors like smoking, alcohol and other drug use.

Only a few studies have looked at antidepressants during pregnancy and autism.

“There’s just as much literature out there that refutes this association as there is that suggests there might be,” he adds.

This type of study can’t prove cause and effect. It’s simply a statistical connection for further investigation.

The ultimate design would be to compare antidepressants versus placebo, but that poses a dilemma because depression is a serious condition that can lead to death through suicide.

“Before we make a major change in practice,” Dr. Weinbaum cautions, “we really should know, and we should wait for more information before we do anything different.”

The findings are not at the point where pregnant women should stop taking antidepressants. In fact, with 1 in 70 children with autism, and 1 in 10 pregnant women with depression, the risks of depression amount to a greater problem.

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Dr. Maria Simbra