I wondered earlier this week if there was a link between autism and the mother’s history of antidepressants, or if researchers have ever considered this hypothesis. The Google results were… interesting. For one thing there was very little research I could find on the subject, but the research I did find is apparently unworthy of notice by the press, as the best source I could find for the information is from the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s Facebook page:
Researchers say they have found connections between autism-like behavior in rats and exposure of those animals to antidepressants during early brain development.
The findings suggest a possible link between pregnant women taking certain antidepressants and autism in children. They could also help explain the nationally rocketing rate of autism spectrum disorders, known as ASDs.
In their study, the scientists exposed rat pups to an antidepressant, citalopram, which promotes serotonin signaling in the brain. They monitored the rats’ behavior, neurochemistry, neuroanatomy and neurophysiology to catalog differences between the treated rats and non-treated rats.
SSRIs, which promote the signaling of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain, came into wide use in the 1990s after Prozac was introduced in the mid ’80s, Lin said. Prozac and a range of SSRIs, including citalopram, gained popularity because they were more effective, safer and had fewer side effects than first-generation antidepressants.
Also in the mid ’80s, experts recognized how tremendously maternal depression can damage mother and fetus. Clinicians increasingly prescribed pregnant women SSRIs to aggressively treat depression, Paul said. [WTH?! -ed.]
During gestation and the first three years of life, brains grow new neurons and make connections between these cells at a phenomenal rate.
The researchers figured SSRI exposure could affect the developing fetus’ brain. Serotonin works differently in adults, where it acts as a neurotransmitter, primarily carrying signals from one nerve cell to another, than in infants where it acts like a growth factor telling the brain how to develop.
In what the researchers suggest is more than coincidence, rates of autism spectrum disorders, or ASDs, exploded during the past two decades.
Here is the most highly disturbing finding, in my opinion:
To come up with a model for ASDs, the researchers gave the rats SSRI antidepressants during the first few weeks of life, a period of rat brain development equivalent to humans during the third trimester of pregnancy. The rats showed autism-like symptoms: antisocial behavior, avoidance of new stimuli, inability to play and lifelong decreased sexual interest.
More importantly, increasing or decreasing the dose respectively worsened or lessened autism-like behavior. In post-mortem analysis, the rats also showed brain abnormalities compared to normal rat brains.
But right near the beginning is this disclaimer:
Both Lin and Paul said their findings shouldn’t keep pregnant women from taking antidepressants. Both said not enough human data exists to suggest changing current treatments.
Rather, their data raises questions about medicine’s enthusiastic use of serotonin reuptake inhibitor antidepressants, known as SSRIs, as front-line treatment during pregnancy and indicate scientists and doctors need to know more.
I’m not actually a doctor, but I am flabbergasted by the rush of the medical profession to place pregnant women on these pills for hormonal influxes that naturally happen during pregnancy without looking for more natural remedies, like hormone replacement or increasing their Vitamin D. I didn’t realize women were being placed on these drugs when pregnant, because usually pregnant women are told not to take any drugs except Tylenol – period. No over-the-counter drugs, nothing. Why? Because it might harm the baby! This is just Pregnancy 101. Really – I thought the harm prescription drugs could do to fetal development was shown with Thalidomide.
But I am also completely flabbergasted that no one in the medical field stopped to consider, for even a moment, what these drugs would do to a developing fetal brain, especially considering they had to revise the use of these drugs in adolescents. Do we really understand enough about brain function to justify the widespread use of these pills? And do we know enough about the fetal development of the brain to justify placing pregnant women on these pills? I understand there are depressed people who are in terrible need of help, and these pills have done just that, but I can’t help but think this is a gross violation of scientific thinking to not pause and consider what these drugs would do to a developing brain since we do know they alter the function of the adult mother taking them.
Finally, I’m cynically suspicious as to why this research hasn’t garnered more attention, and why a year after it’s initial release, it hasn’t been published elsewhere. Perhaps it raises far too many uncomfortable findings but I, for one, will be keeping a close eye to see if this research is developed further.
Update: Please see an additional post New Autism Test for Infants
Researchers discovered that children who had an older sibling with an autism disorder had different brain wave patterns than children with seemingly no autism risks.
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