Pregnant? Taking Antidepressants Could Affect Your Baby’s Brain

Fetal brain development may be at risk, a new study finds.

Are fetuses affected by their mothers taking antidepressants? According to a recently published study in JAMA Pediatrics, taking antidepressants during pregnancy may affect fetal brain development in ways we do not yet fully understand.

A team of researchers studied 98 babies — 61 infants born to women without depression, 21 babies whose mothers had untreated depression during pregnancy, and 16 newborns whose mothers took selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) antidepressants during pregnancy.

Researchers found that babies whose mothers were taking SSRIs during pregnancy showed greater brain volume in areas associated with emotions and the processing of emotions, like the amygdala and the insular cortex, as well as increased connectivity between those regions of the brain, Reuters reports, compared to babies whose mothers were not treated for, or were not experiencing, depression.

“Based on our study and those of other researchers, we can say with some confidence that SSRI medications have an influence of fetal brain development,” said one of the study’s co-first authors, Dr. Jiook Cha, of the Columbia University Medical Center's Department of Psychiatry and the New York State Psychiatric Institute. He added, “Exactly what that influence means over the longer term with regard to the infant’s cognitive and emotional development remains unclear and requires subsequent research to really understand.”

But is it dangerous for women to take antidepressants during pregnancy? That much remains unclear.

The potential long-term behavioral and psychological outcomes of these neurodevelopmental changes requires further study, researchers explained. The study’s findings are especially relevant, considering that the number of pregnant women taking antidepressants has grown in recent years, increasing from 2.5% in 1998 to 8.1% in 2005 in four states.

“Hopefully these results highlight the fact that something could be going on here. They point to the fact that there is a signal — we don’t know what it means, or don’t know how long it might last. But we know it’s worth studying,” one of the study’s co-first authors, Dr. Claudia Lugo-Candelas, a postdoctoral research fellow at Columbia University, said. She also pointed out that the babies whose mothers were taking SSRIs were born healthy, Time reports. Pregnant women who are considering taking antidepressants should consult with their doctors to find the best treatment option.

The long-term use of antidepressants is growing nationwide, across more demographics than just pregnant women, according to a recently published analysis by The New York Times. Roughly 15.5 million people in the U.S. have been taking antidepressants for at least five years; the rate has nearly doubled since 2010, and has tripled since 2000.

Now, 25 million adults report having been on antidepressants for at least two years — a 60% increase since 2010. Although many medications are prescribed for short-term use, it's sometimes difficult to ween off them and some patients may find themselves facing unexpected withdrawal symptoms that the medical community is still figuring out how to effectively handle.

(Photo: Asian mother holding newborn baby in hospital. Via Getty Images)

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