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Antidepressant Use During Pregnancy Can Affect Language Development

Child paints ABCs

Some of today’s most widely prescribed antidepressants can affect the language development of babies whose mothers take the drugs when they are pregnant, a new study has found. The study reports yet another way that selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) negatively affect fetuses who are exposed to these antidepressants.

The study, which was published Oct. 8 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that SSRIs can speed up the baby’s ability to focus on the sights and sounds of language, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Faster is Not Necessarily Better

Janet Werker, professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada, and lead author of the study, said that the faster speed was not sought after in the learning process.

“In our culture we tend to think speeding things up is a good thing, but it’s not necessarily so with infant language development,” Werker told the news service HealthDay.

The study also found that when maternal depression was not treated with medicine, the baby could have a longer period of early language development. However, the study was unable to determine if either effect on a baby’s learning process would be a long-term problem.

Werker and her colleagues analyzed pregnant women whose depression was treated with SSRIs, depressed pregnant women who were not treated with SSRIs, and pregnant women who were not suffering from depression. The researchers compared infants’ language development at 6 months and 10 months by measuring changes in heart rate and eye movement in response to videos of speakers. A second experiment focused on the babies’ responses to sounds, rather than language.

SSRI Use During Pregnancy Linked to Birth Defects

This study is not the first to show that taking SSRIs during pregnancy can be dangerous and should only be done after careful consideration and consultation with a doctor. Previous research has linked SSRIs to a number of birth defects, including heart defects, persistent pulmonary hypertension of the newborn (PPHN), anencephaly, cleft lip and palate, and respiratory distress.

The FDA issued a public safety alert about PPHN in 2006. PPHN is a life-threatening condition because it damages the baby’s heart and lungs and it rarely is detected in utero. The National Institutes of Health says that the risk of a baby developing PPHN is six times higher than the general public when a woman takes an SSRI during the last half of pregnancy.

SSRIs, such as popular brand-name drugs Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft, are considered the best standard of treatment for most types of depression, which means there are many, many women who may have unknowingly put their babies at risk for complications, birth defects and developmental issues.

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