Antidepressants During Pregnancy May Change Baby’s Brain Development

A new, small study looks at the link between antidepressants use during pregnancy and the potential for brain changes in newborn infants that might lead to mood disorders in later life.

The research, which is published this month in JAMA Pediatrics, examines a topic that science has been keen to get a better understanding of: if expecting mothers use antidepressants, will it impact a baby’s health?

Research has previously found casual links between antidepressant use during pregnancy and a higher likelihood of children having conditions ranging from ADHD through to autism spectrum behaviors.

These studies did not give us insight into whether there was a causal  effect — whether the drugs themselves were leading to these changes — or whether, in reality, there was an underlying link between the mother’s own brain and body chemistry and the conditions her children would then display in early development.

To put it simply, it wasn’t clear whether it was the antidepressants or the conditions the drugs were being used to treat that might lead to a greater likelihood of such problems. It was also unclear whether those studies had any true value at all given their small sample size, among other problems.

This latest research, however, used MRI scanning technology to look at an infant’s brain and see if any unusual features could be detected in children of women who used antidepressants.

What the Research Found

The researchers took a sample of 98 children, 16 of whom had mothers who had been treated for depression using a popular class of drugs known as SSRIs. A further 21 members of that sample were the children of women who had been diagnosed with depression but had not received antidepressants during pregnancy. The last group comprised 61 children of mothers with no history of depression.

Researchers in this case found that infants who had been exposed to SSRIs in the womb tended to have greater development in two key areas of the brain that are thought to be important for how we regulate our moods: the amygdala  and the insular cortex.

The researchers also observed greater connectivity between these regions, suggesting that there might be more communication going on. Greater connectivity in the brain isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it has been identified in other studies as a potential feature of mood disorders like depression.

This has led the researchers to infer that SSRI exposure while in the womb could lead to changes that might make children more susceptible to mood disorders.

The researchers readily admit that they cannot say this for definite and caution people from taking away things from this study that are not there.

What they do stress, however, is that this study appears to show something really is going on when mothers do use antidepressants during pregnancy, and that is worth exploring.

“Hopefully these results highlight the fact that something could be going on here,” Claudia Lugo-Candelas, a post-doctoral research fellow at Columbia University, told Time, “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.”

However, there are some things to keep in mind from this study.

Other researchers have been keen to point out that this study doesn’t necessarily prove that it is the antidperessants that are creating these changes.

For example, poorer people and people belonging to minorities tend to be more likely to be diagnosed with depression. This can be due to a range of factors from early-life stress, through to not having the money to buy quality foods. These and a range of other factors could be at work in creating these brain changes in the newborns scanned for this study.

Further research will need to carefully control for these factors in order to pinpoint if it is the antidepressants at work or a combination of several different things.

We also don’t know if the changes in the infants in this study were long-lasting or whether they would ultimately revert back to more typical brain activity. That will also have to be studied.

What to take away from this study.

Doctors avoid prescribing antidepressants to pregnant women, and if you are on long-term medication for a mood disorder, or for other reasons, your doctor may look at slowly discontinuing use for the duration of your pregnancy.

However, if an expectant mother has a major depressive disorder or other related conditions, some SSRIs may be suitable. Depending on a mother’s case history, her doctor may say that antidepressants are still a good option for her.

The researchers in this study echo medical guidelines that state no mother should discontinue her medication use. Any potential risks to her baby — and if they exist at all, they are very slight even in small population samples like this — are far outweighed by ensuring the mother’s mental health.

The key here is for any person looking to start a family to consult with their doctors on whether antidepressants are something they want to continue using through pregnancy and, in the case of coming off them, how that can be done in a safe and controlled manner, with the support of a partner, spouse, or family.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

24 comments

Sheila Miller
Sheila Miller3 months ago

Any drugs should be avoided during pregnancy. You never know how it harms the baby. Thank you for this information.

SEND
Winn A
Winn A3 months ago

Noted

SEND
Winn A
Winn A3 months ago

Thanks

SEND
Angela G
Angela G3 months ago

depends how bad the depression is

SEND
Muff-Anne Y

I wouldn’t take any meds if I were pregnant.

SEND
Anne M
Anne Moran3 months ago

Are you kidding me ?? - To stop taking prescribed medication for mood disorders, is suicide.. - I can't help but think/shudder what would happen to a woman who is bipolar/schizophrenic, if she stopped taking her meds during her pregnancy... - These aren't jelly beans we're talking about here... - And also,, women who stop taking antidepressants while pregnant,, may have even higher chances of getting the dreaded/killer baby blues, weeks/months after delivery.. - Don't mess with psychotic drugs,, as you're just asking for trouble...

SEND
Alea C
Alea C3 months ago

I wouldn't take any medications if I were pregnant, but I never will be, as there are too many humans here already.

SEND
Martin Hill
Martin Hill3 months ago

Common sense! This article should be unessesary - stop putting chemicals in your body if your pregnant or trying.

SEND
Chrissie R
Chrissie R3 months ago

Could they counteract hereditary disorders??

SEND
Ruth S
Ruth S3 months ago

Thanks.

SEND