Studies abound that aim to answer both the question "What causes autism?" and "What is the reason for the increase in incidence and prevalence of autism?" A study published in the November issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry, Antidepressant Use During Pregnancy and Childhood Autism Spectrum Disorders caught my attention. As both the prevalence of autism and the use of SSRI's (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) have increased dramatically in recent years, and SSRI's are powerful medications that act on the brain, the findings do seem plausible.
Writing about research for a general audience, I want to say at the start that this is a preliminary investigation, one that simply raises a question. Pregnant women or those planning to conceive who are on these medications should not rush to go off them. The authors of the study are careful to say that, "The potential risk associated with exposure must be balanced with the risk to the mother or fetus of untreated mental health disorders." Untreated mental health disorders do pose a risk to mother and fetus. Women who are pregnant or of childbearing age and contemplating getting pregnant who have been on SSRI's may have a great difficulty getting off of them even if there is a question of risk to a fetus.
In this population based study done at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program in Northern California, the researchers found
a 2-fold increased risk of ASD(autism spectrum disorder) associated with treatment with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors by the mother during the year before delivery, with the strongest effect associated with treatment during the first trimester.They found that there was no increase in risk for ASD if a mother had been treated for mental health problems but did not receive SSRI's. This finding attempts to answer the question of whether it is the depression or the drug that is associated with ASD. Their findings suggest that it is the drug.
The authors conclude:
Although the number of children exposed prenatally to selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors in this population was low, results suggest that exposure, especially during the first trimester, may modestly increase the risk of ASD. Further studies are needed to replicate and extend these findings.My reaction to the study is not its implication for women who are pregnant now, but for young girls and adolescents who are being placed on these medications, often by pediatricians, for relatively mild symptoms. SSRI's have been shown to be effective for severe depression, and certainly in the setting of suicidal behavior, the urgent need for treatment may outweigh the potential long-term risk.
Recently I had the privilege to read an advance review copy of a book due to come out this April with the compelling title Dosed: The Medication Generation Grows Up. A well-researched book written by a journalist who has herself been on SSRI's since her teenage years, it shows how these drugs are often not a quick fix, but rather may be followed by a decades-long relationship with psychiatric medication. One particularly striking story is of a woman started on a SSRI at age 11 who, now pregnant in her thirties, is unable to get off them despite her strong desire to protect her unborn child from the potential risks of the drug.
Because these medications can cause such dramatic symptom relief, it is understandable how parents, physicians and teenagers themselves are drawn to them. Seeing your child in emotional pain is one of the greatest challenges of being a parent. However, in the absence of suicidality, holding them through these crises, with a combination of careful listening and quality psychotherapy, may in fact give them the tools to manage future crises they may encounter as they venture out into the world on their own. In my book, Keeping Your Child in Mind, the chapter on adolescence shows how these interventions can promote healthy emotional development.
Shortage of quality mental health care services, as well as lack of support for parents of teenagers, may make this kind of help difficult to attain. But now that this risk of SSRI's to a fetus is out there as a possibility, I believe it is more important than ever that we as a society make an effort to provide treatment for children and adolescents with mild to moderate depression that does not include prescribing psychiatric medication.
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