Taking antidepressants during pregnancy could result in kids with sensory issues, mouse study finds

Taking antidepressants during pregnancy may alter a baby’s sense of touch by affecting the part of the brain that tells them what their hands feel

  • Researchers exposed one group of pregnant mice to fluoxetine, a common antidepressant that raises serotonin levels in the brain
  • Newborn mice had abnormal brain activity in the sensory areas when their front paws were wiggled
  • This unusual activity continued into adulthood, suggesting that antidepressants may change the way they interpret information gathered from touch for life

Taking antidepressants during pregnancy could permanently change the way children’s brains process sensory information, a new study suggests.

Researchers from Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis, Missouri, exposed mice to a common antidepressant in the womb and for the first two weeks after birth.

Findings showed that the exposed mice had abnormal brain activity when the scientists wiggled their front paws.

What’s more, this lasted into adulthood, which the team says suggests that exposure to the drug can cause long-lasting changes in the mouse brain. 

While the findings may not translate to humans, this could have implications for the way that babies and children process the way they feel things.

A new study from Washington University School of Medicine has found that mice exposed to antidepressants in the womb had abnormal brain activity in the sensory areas (file image) 

Depression is a serious mood disorder that causes persistent feelings of sadness and affects the ability to go about daily activities. 

Research suggests that about seven percent of women experience depression during pregnancy, according to the Mayo Clinic.  

Depression during pregnancy is linked to premature birth, low birth weight and six-fold risk of postpartum depression, a 2013 Danish study found.

The authors of the new study say that physicians are increasingly prescribing common antidepressants – selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) – to pregnant patients without fully understanding the effects on fetuses.

Some research has associated antidepressants during pregnancy, with an increased risk of heart defects, but results have been inconclusive.  

To look at the effects on brain activity, the team split pregnant mice into two groups.

One group was exposed to nothing while the other was exposed to fluoxetine, commonly known as Prozac.

It works by increasing levels of serotonin in the brain, which is a neurotransmitter that carries signals between neurons. 

The team then compared brain scans of the exposed newborn mice to the controlled infant mice.

While resting, the scans are nearly the same.  

However, when they stimulated the front paws, exposed mice had ‘abnormal brain activity’ in the sensory areas – but the exact activity wasn’t clear.

The same activity occurred when the mice reached adulthood, which suggests these changes in sensory processing are long-term, and potentially irreversible.

‘This is an interesting study that adds to our understanding of the implications of taking SSRI medication in pregnancy,’ said Dr Ian Jones, a professor of psychiatry at Cardiff University in Wales, who was not involved in the study.

‘However, we should be cautious in extrapolating findings in mice to humans and it is not clear what impact similar changes would have in people. 

‘The other important question not addressed by this work is the potential impact of untreated mental illness on children whose mothers were very unwell in pregnancy.’

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