Antidepressants help a lot of women manage their depression and control their mental health. But, as it turns out, taking antidepressants during pregnancy could impact your baby's brain, according to a new study. Of course, the study has limitations and offers no remedies for depression that would perhaps be better suited for pregnant women — but the findings are nonetheless important.
Clinical depression affects about 16 million people in the U.S., according to TIME. And a recent report from the National Center for Health Statistics shows that from 2011 through 2014, close to 13 percent of people 12 and older said they took an antidepressant in the last month. That number is up from 11 percent during 2005 to 2008. Moreover, many of those who took antidepressants also reported using them longterm: 68 percent of people ages 12 and up said they had been taking their antidepressant for two years or more, and one-quarter of people who took antidepressants reported taking them for 10 years or more.
Because women are twice as likely to develop depression as men, they are also twice as likely to take antidepressants, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. And women who are prone to depression are especially vulnerable while expecting, according to Vox. But for women who are pregnant or thinking about getting pregnant, researchers are warning that the medications can have affects on their babies' brains.
The researchers looked at the brain scans of 16 newborns whose mothers took serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs, a common class of antidepressants) to treat depression during pregnancy, and they found that babies' brains may develop differently when their mothers take antidepressants, according to Eyewitness News.
Likewise, they also examined 21 babies whose mothers had untreated depression during pregnancy, and 61 infants born to women without depression. The results were published in JAMA Pediatrics, and they suggest that babies whose mothers indeed took SSRIs had greater brain volume in regions of the brain that are critical for emotional processing, compared to babies whose mothers had untreated depression or were not experiencing depression, according to Medical Xpress. More specifically, the greater brain volume was found in the amygdala and the insular cortex — regions that regulate mood and intensive feelings like fear and joy. According to the researchers, this not necessarily harmful, but it's a noticeable difference nonetheless.
"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," study coauthor Jiook Cha, of the New York State Psychiatric Institute and Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City said, according to Eyewitness News.
Cha added that exactly what that influence means over the longer term when it comes to the infant’s cognitive and emotional development is still unknown and would require subsequent research to really understand, Eyewitness News reported. But the study neither proves that antidepressants directly cause abnormal brain development or cognitive and emotional problems, nor explores the potential harms of untreated depression. It also doesn't look into what other depression remedies might be safer or more affective for pregnant women.
Previous research has suggested that about 5 percent of expectant mothers take antidepressants, most commonly, citalopram (brand name Celexa), paroxetine (Paxil), or sertraline (Zoloft). But, overall, doctors have assumed that the risks of leaving moderate or severe depression untreated typically outweigh the known risks associated with antidepressants, according to Vox.
Whatever options women choose to explore to treat their depression — whether it be antidepressants, psychotherapy, other medications or something else entirely — it's important they do so.
"Maternal depression increases the risk for negative pregnancy outcomes such as low birth weight and prematurity," Cha said, according to Eyewitness News. "It can also lead to postpartum depression with effects on mother-infant bonding." Untreated depression could lead to a whole host of other health issues.