Children whose mothers take Zoloft, Prozac, or similar antidepressants during pregnancy are twice as likely as other children to have a dianosis of autism or a related disorder, according to a small new study, the first to examine the relationship between antidepressants and autism risk. This class of antidepressants, known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), may be especially risky early on in a pregnancy, the study suggests. Children who were exposed to the drugs during the first trimester were nearly four times as likely to develop an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) compared with unexposed children, according to the study, which appears in the Archives of General Psychiatry. The study included fewer than 300 children with a diagnosed ASD and does not prove that taking SSRIs during pregnancy directly causes ASDs, which affect approximately 1 percent of children in the U.S. The findings will need to be confirmed in larger studies, and should not dissuade women from starting or continuing to take SSRIs, experts on prenatal drug exposure and mental health say. The lead author of the study, Lisa Croen, Ph.D., the director of autism research at Kaiser Permanente Northern California, a large nonprofit health plan based in Oakland, emphasizes the preliminary nature of her team’s findings. “This is the first study of its kind to look at the association, and the findings have to be interpreted with a lot of caution,” she says. “We can’t detect causality from one study.”
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