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Growing Evidence Links Antidepressants and Birth Defects


September 22, 2014 — A column published in the New York Times has highlighted new studies linking birth defects with the use of SSRI antidepressants during pregnancy.

Some of the most popular SSRIs include Zoloft, Lexapro, Celexa, and Prozac. According to Barbara Mintzes, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia School of Population and Public Health:

“If antidepressants made such a big difference, and women on them were eating better, sleeping better and taking better care of themselves, then one would expect to see better birth outcomes among the women who took medication than among similar women who did not. … What’s striking is that there’s no research evidence showing that.”

SSRIs are known to pass to a fetus through the placenta and the blood-brain barrier. Serotonin plays an essential role in signaling fetal development of the brain, lungs, heart, gut, and more. Inhibiting serotonin could potentially lead to a wide range of birth defects. In the last few months, several studies have found evidence of potential neurological harms associated with SSRIs:

  • PLoS One (March 2014) — Study finds up to a doubled increased risk of premature birth associated with 2nd and 3rd-trimester use of antidepressants.
  • Pediatrics (April 2014) — In boys, prenatal exposure to SSRIs (especially 1st-trimester exposure) was associated with developmental delays.
  • BJOG (April 2014) — Norwegian study of 51,000 children found language competency deficiency in children by age 3.
  • Molecular Psychiatry (August 2014) — Study by researchers at Harvard finds nearly twice the rate of ADHD in children exposed to an SSRI during pregnancy.

Despite growing evidence, the link between antidepressants and birth defects is inconclusive and likely depends on individual factors (severity of illness and likelihood of relapse, for example). The “prevailing attitude” among doctors is that untreated depression can cause a woman to stop taking care of herself and her child, which could have far more serious consequences than any drug.


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