"Children exposed to antidepressants during pregnancy seemed to be at a higher risk of autism, particularly autism without intellectual disability, than children of mothers with psychiatric disorders who were not treated with antidepressants during pregnancy" spoke a researcher.
However, the researchers stress that the absolute risk of autism was small, so these results should not be considered alarming.
Depression is common in women of childbearing age, and in Europe 3-8% of pregnant women are prescribed antidepressants during pregnancy. "On the other hand, given that this association might not exclusively be the byproduct of confounding by indication, it is important to continue investigation of possible underlying biological mechanisms that could help us to better understand the etiology of autism".
According to the researchers, such factors - known as confounding - can introduce bias and affect the results of a study, making it hard to draw firm conclusions about cause and effect.
Of the 3,342 children exposed to antidepressants during pregnancy, 4.1% (136) were diagnosed with autism.
All of those studied were born to mothers who didn't take antidepressants and who didn't suffer from any psychiatric disorders, mothers who took antidepressants during pregnancy, or mothers with psychiatric disorders who did not take antidepressants at all during pregnancy.
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"In the past 5 years, several epidemiological studies have assessed the relation between antidepressant use during pregnancy and autism in offspring, but robust conclusions have been elusive".
"This and other studies clearly suggest that there is an increased background risk of autism in children of women with psychiatric conditions, regardless of antidepressant treatment. Balancing benefits and risks of taking medications during pregnancy is a complex and often hard decision, and our advice would be for women to discuss their concerns with their treating clinicians who will be able to help them weigh the pros and cons and make an informed decision".
However, the scientists point out the overall risk for autism is small, and more than 95 percent of women in the study who took the drugs during pregnancy didn't have a child with autism spectrum disorder.
In a linked editorial, Diana Schendel at Aarhus University in Denmark says the findings of this study "should be viewed through the kaleidoscope of possible causes of autism" and calls for future studies to be better powered, and include measures of maternal disease severity, more reliable measures of antidepressant use, and, ideally genetic markers.
She said the small apparent increased risk of a child developing autism "must be carefully weighed against the substantial health consequences associated with untreated depression".
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