Antidepressants, infection combination can lead to neurological disorders in infants

Charlottesville-based University of Virginia Health System researchers found commonly used antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors can interact with inflammation in a mother's body, resulting in permanent brain changes in a fetus, Science Daily reported Dec. 20.

SSRIs are prescribed to 80 percent of pregnant women who need depression medication, and the drugs are widely considered safe. Prior research showed infections and autoimmune disorders can alter a mother's immune state during pregnancy and affect neurodevelopment. UVA researchers said SSRIs interact with inflammation and amplify it, leading to permanent brain changes, according to the report.

"Our findings suggest that SSRIs can have deleterious consequences when mixed with infection, inflammation, etc.," senior researcher John Lukens, PhD, of the UVA Department of Neuroscience and its Center for Brain Immunology and Glia, as well as the UVA Brain Institute, said in the report. "Our results might help to explain the rise in autism prevalence over the last 20 years, as this time coincides with the rollout of widespread SSRI usage in the developing world."

Inflammation alone and combined with SSRIs altered serotonin levels in the placenta, but in opposite directions, researchers said. "This highlights the importance of considering the entire prenatal environment, as drugs designed to dampen inflammation may lead to unanticipated consequences on the baby if they are combined with other modulators, such as SSRIs," researcher Kristine Zengeler, author of a scientific paper outlining the findings, said in the report.

Untreated maternal stress, depression and anxiety can perturb offspring neurodevelopment, according to the researchers. They call for more research to be done to explore the link between antidepressants and neurodevelopment.

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