Study: Antidepressants During Pregnancy Impact Fetus

The use of antidepressants during pregnancy can impact early postnatal brain development, according to a study in mice.

About one in ten (11%) of Americans aged 12 and older take antidepressants, and their use is more common in women than men. Common side effects of antidepressants include gastrointestinal issues, headaches, dizziness, and loss of libido.

A new study that appeared in the journal Nature Communications examined the effect of the drug fluoxetine on the developing prefrontal cortex of mice, a part of the brain that is located just behind the forehead and is responsible for regulating thoughts, actions, and emotions.

Fluoxetine, which is sold under the brand names Prozac and Sarafem, is commonly used to treat depression and perinatal depression. According to the drug label, fluoxetine may cause problems in newborns after delivery if it is taken during the last months of pregnancy.

Fluoxetine works by increasing the levels of serotonin — a neurotransmitter responsible for regulating mood — in the brain. Therefore, the research team led by the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus looked at serotonin's impact on prefrontal cortex development.

"While it is known that serotonin plays a role in brain development, the mechanisms responsible for this influence, specifically in the prefrontal cortex, have been unclear," said lead author Won Chan Oh, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacology at CU Anschutz, in a statement.

The researchers discovered that serotonin directly influences nascent and immature excitatory synaptic connections in the prefrontal cortex, which, if disrupted or dysregulated during early development, can contribute to various mental health disorders.

They also found that serotonin plays a specific role in influencing how individual connections between neurons change and adapt, contributing to the brain's ability to learn and adjust.

Understanding this correlation has the potential to help with early intervention and the development of new therapeutics for neurodevelopmental disorders involving serotonin dysregulation.

Won Chan Oh

The study was conducted in mice, so the findings may not apply to humans. Meanwhile, the researchers plan to continue studying the impact of fluoxetine, focusing on its impact on a developing brain later in life.

Should I take antidepressants while pregnant?

About 2–3% of pregnant women take antidepressants during pregnancy, and the number of mothers treated increases by birth to 5–7%.

The treatment of depression during pregnancy is controversial, as the medication use is linked to premature birth, decreased body weight of the child, and persistent pulmonary hypertension, among other complications.

However, untreated depression can have adverse effects on maternal health, increasing the risk of preeclampsia, eclampsia, and postnatal depression.

The study does not prove that the use of antidepressants during pregnancy can impair brain development in humans. If you feel the symptoms of depression while pregnant, discuss treatment options with your healthcare provider.

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