Exposure to Antidepressants in the Womb Linked to Autistic Behavior in Mice

Researchers experimenting on mice found that exposure to fluoxetine (Prozac) in utero resulted in behaviors considered in animal studies to be analogous to autism in humans.

Peter Simons
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Approximately 10% of pregnant women continue taking antidepressants during pregnancy, which may affect fetal growth in a variety of ways, including brain development. Children exposed to antidepressants in the womb may be more susceptible to behaviors associated with psychiatric disorders and autism. However, it’s challenging to study this effect experimentally in humans, as most types of experiments would be unethical.

Now, researchers, led by H. Shawn Je at Duke-National University of Singapore (NUS), used a mouse model to study this effect, concluding that antidepressant exposure causes memory and social learning problems that may mirror autistic behaviors in humans.

Photo Credit: Pixabay

The research was published in the journal Molecular Brain. Je and the other researchers injected pregnant mice with the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) fluoxetine (Prozac), then studied how their offspring behaved.

There were two main tests: first, the mice were given a Y-maze to explore (this is a maze that has several branches: in this case, three). Typically, mice will explore all branches, as they have a preference for exploring new stimuli. The mice exposed to fluoxetine consistently failed to explore new branches.

Second, the mice were exposed to additional mice in a social task. Usually, mice will have a preference for spending time sniffing the new mice, as again they have an inclination to explore new stimuli. However, the mice exposed to fluoxetine spent equal time sniffing new and familiar mice. The researchers describe this as a social-memory failure.

The researchers then gave the mice a drug called volinanserin, which also works on the serotonin system, although in a different fashion from fluoxetine. They found that this treatment appeared to reverse the effect, making the mice more likely to engage in stimuli-seeking behaviors.

It is, of course, a significant limitation of the study that it was conducted in mice, so it is unclear how well these results will translate to humans.

However, in humans, exposure to antidepressants in utero has been associated with a variety of health problems, and congenital disabilities, including brain development problems and an increased risk of psychiatric disorders, including autism, which has been repeatedly documented. Other risks include speech disorders and dyslexia, newborn hypertension, bone problems, heart problems, and even dental problems, as SSRIs may affect craniofacial development.

Prenatal exposure to antidepressants is also linked to pre-term births and spontaneous abortions. Neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), which is caused by newborns experiencing physical withdrawal from drugs they were exposed to in utero, occurs in about 30% of babies exposed to antidepressants.

In the future, the researchers plan to give SSRI drugs to autistic children in the hopes that it might reverse the behaviors that may have been caused by exposure to those drugs in utero.

According to the press release, “The team next wants to examine autistic children born to mothers treated with antidepressants using positron emission tomography (PET) scans, an imaging technique used to observe metabolic processes in the body. If they also show enhanced serotonin receptor activity in the same area of the brain, the team plans to test whether FDA-approved serotonin receptor blockers can normalize their behaviors.”

 

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Yu, W., Yen, Y., Lee, Y., Tan, S., Xiao, Y. . . . Ho, W., & Je, H. S. (2019). Prenatal selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) exposure induces working memory and social recognition deficits by disrupting inhibitory synaptic networks in male mice. Molecular Brain, 12(29). doi: 10.1186/s13041-019-0452-5 (Link)

9 COMMENTS

  1. Since “it’s challenging to study this effect experimentally in humans, as most types of experiments would be unethical,” shouldn’t it be unethical to mass prescribe these drugs to children and women of prenatal age?

    And rather than discussing the lack of ethics of mass drugging children and young women with drugs that cause birth defects,” the researchers plan to give SSRI drugs to autistic children in the hopes that it might reverse the behaviors that may have been caused by exposure to those drugs in utero.” Drugs that harm children in utero, are going to cure the children out of the womb? Where’s the sense in that?

    And “the team plans to test whether FDA-approved serotonin receptor blockers can normalize their behaviors.” Instead of ending the mass drugging of children and women, they want to test more drugs to treat the problem their drugs caused in the first place. When will this insanity and lack of ethics end?

  2. “If they also show enhanced serotonin receptor activity in the same area of the brain, the team plans to test whether FDA-approved serotonin receptor blockers can normalize their behaviors.”

    These people are crazy.

    Far from recommending the prohibition of antidepressants for pregnant women, as is already the case with alcohol which causes the Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, these individuals do not dispute the voluntary intoxication of pregnant women by the doctors, but on the contrary they promise that they will find a magic bullet to cure the “Fetal SSRI spectrum disorders”, an illness they begin to “discover”.

    Psychiatry is telling us, “We are discovering that we are causing congenital and probably hereditary diseases by exposing children to neurotoxic drugs in utero, but do not worry! We are going to give them even more neurotoxic drugs, which should improve the situation (we hope)”.

    There is no drug to treat FASD because it is a developmental syndrome, and if the “Fetal SSRI spectrum disorders” really exists, there will be no drugs to treat it either, for the same reason.

    That’s why research will never change the psychiatry – nor will it abolish it, of course – that to stop psychiatry, we need repression of the state. And I’m not talking about a little repression, like penalties or prohibitions to practice, I’m talking about a brutal repression, really staggering and devastating, as the state knows very well to use when it deems necessary.

  3. Is this some new form of quantum entanglement or have I misread the article?

    Pregnant women that pop antidepressants create autistic mice?

    Maybe the solution to autistic children is to create some other quantum entanglement by giving pregnant mice antidepressants?

    Question: are autistic mice exceptionally skilled at computer programming?

    • No, mice on antidepressants give birth to autistic mice, and it seems that women on antidepressants also give birth to more children with autism.

      For the moment nothing is certain, but this type of research, and the way in which psychiatry uses it (MORE DRUG), is worrying.

  4. @Sylvain Rousselot

    I agree that the study is worrying for mice.

    Given recent advances in neurology I’m surprised that they are still using mice as avatars for human beings.

    However, the womb is a very toxic environment the world over to incubate new human beings. With all the heavy metals, pesticides, plastic particulates, chemicals in food and so on… the food chain is fucked.

    Plus the consumption of alcohol, the pollution from roads, the electromagnetic radiation… and so on…

    Studies like these do not account for any of these factors. They pretend that we live in an alternate universe where none of these factors have relevance. And end up looking like exercises in scapegoating…

    I agree that women should not be using psychoactive drugs at all during pregnancy… even though that is pretty much unachievable.

    One last point. You sidestepped my joke. Can you describe to me an autistic mouse?

  5. I’ve been waiting to hear this. There must be a naturalistic way to study autistic children and their mothers to see what antidepressants and other drugs the mothers were on.

    But golly no, autism is a “natural variation of the human condition,” and we cannot discuss this with them, lest the snowflakes melt.

    Chiro John Bergman calls it (correctly) a neurological disorder. And antidepressants are not – like rasselas.redux states – the only factor. Just like vaccines are not. Or glyphosate.

    Likewise when I want to ask the people in the asexual forum – how many of you had mothers on antidepressants? Or how many of you were exposed to antidepressants around puberty or shortly thereafter? I ask the questions and get booted out of the forum, because “asexuality is a normal variation of the human condition.”

    Kind of like madness. It is, in a sense. But it’s like there’s something else going on, too.

    The mice study points to it, but Sylvain Rousselot nails it when he says, “That’s okay, though, we’ve got toxic drugs to fix that. . . “