Scientists at the Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH) have discovered that using antidepressant medication during late pregnancy could slightly increase the likelihood for the baby to develop a potentially fatal heart condition.

In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, epidemiologist Krista Huybrechts led a team of researchers in studying the effects of persistent pulmonary hypertension (PPHN), a rare lung and heart condition that can often occurs in newborn babies, especially those exposed to serotonin-specific reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).

Medications based on SSRIs have previously been associated with miscarriages birth defects, and preterm births.

The researchers analyzed medical data collected from around 3.8 million pregnant women enrolled in Medicaid. They found that out of the total number of cases studied, 102,179 (2.7 percent) of the women took SSRIs during the latter part of their pregnancy. The most common of these antidepressants include Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft.

The findings showed that 7,630 (20.4-21.3 per 10 000 births) of the babies that were not exposed to antidepressants were diagnosed with PPHN.

Around 322 (28.3-35.2 per 10 000 births) of the infants were found to have been exposed to SSRIs, while 78 (23.3-36.4 per 10 000 births) of them were exposed to non-SSRIs medications.

Huybrechts said the difference they found was slight, and after considering other differences among the mothers, they did not find a significant increase.

"The results were surprising in the sense that earlier studies had found an association" between hypertension and anti-
depressants, she said.

Huybrechts, however, pointed out that further studies are needed to explore these findings.

Dr. Adam Urato, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at the Tufts Medical Center, who is not involved in the BWH study, explained that medicines based on SSRIs alter the function of serotonin in the body. He said that serotonin is vital in helping nerves communicate and it also plays a key role in the development of the child.

"The broad overview to understand this is a three-word phrase: Chemicals have consequences," Urato said.

In 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a Public Health Advisory on the potential link between serotonin-specific reuptake inhibitors and persistent pulmonary hypertension. Recent studies, however, has provided conflicting results on this possibility according to the FDA.

The Brigham and Women's Hospital study is featured in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Photo: Thomas Pompernigg | Flickr

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