Bristol, UK—A new study finds a slightly higher risk of autism in children whose mothers took antidepressants during pregnancy but, adds that the overall risk remains very small.

The study in The BMJ Today notes that those children were compared to children of mothers with psychiatric disorders who were not treated with antidepressants during pregnancy.

Background information in the article points out that depression is common in women of childbearing age, and in Europe, with 3% to 8% of pregnant women prescribed antidepressants during pregnancy.

The research cites several studies that have reported associations between antidepressant use during pregnancy and autism in offspring but states that the role of confounding factors was not clear in those cases.

For this study, a team from the University of Bristol in the UK applied a range of analytical methods to a large Swedish population. Data were analyzed from 254,610 individuals aged 4 to17 years, including 5,378 with autism, living in Stockholm in 2001-2011 who were born to:
• Mothers who did not take antidepressants and did not have any psychiatric disorder,
• Mothers who took antidepressants during pregnancy, or
• Mothers with psychiatric disorders who did not take antidepressants during pregnancy.

Of the 3,342 children exposed to antidepressants during pregnancy, 4.1% were diagnosed with autism compared to 2.9% in 12,325 children not exposed to antidepressants but whose mothers had a history of a psychiatric disorder.

The increased risk was not evident when fathers were prescribed antidepressants during the mothers’ pregnancy, according to the study.

Because the results of the various analyses seemed to be consistent with each other, the researchers suggest that the association between antidepressant use in pregnancy and autism does not appear to be fully explained by confounding.

They add that, even if the association between antidepressant use and autism were proven, only 2% of cases would be prevented if no women with psychiatric disorders used antidepressants.

The study calls for “a balanced discussion in relation to clinical decision making in the light of evolving but yet inconsistent evidence” and states that “it is important to continue investigation of possible underlying biological mechanisms that could help us to better understand the etiology of autism.”

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