Women who take antidepressants while pregnant could be driving the rise of children with short attention spans.
Scientists found the risk of a child developing attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder – ADHD – was raised if their mothers had been prescribed pills for depression during pregnancy.
The research, conducted by doctors at the Massachusetts General Hospital in the U.S., looked at 7,800 children aged between two and 19 years old.
They found that those children who had been exposed to antidepressants in the womb were more likely to have ADHD, a condition linked to impulsiveness, restlessness and hyperactivity.
If the mother had stopped taking the drugs before they became pregnant, however, the risk of ADHD was significantly reduced.
Around one in seven women suffer depression during pregnancy.
Although many cases are minor, an estimated 20,000 women each year take antidepressants – around 4 per cent of all British pregnancies.
ADHD is a problem that is rapidly growing in the UK. Prescriptions for the condition rose from 92,100 in 1997 to 786,400 in 2012, NHS figures show.
Some doctors think the figures are partly explained by a greater awareness of the condition, but the new research may suggest a link to the drugs taken by mothers.
The research, published today in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, warned that the risk of ADHD had to be balanced against the risk of depression.
‘Discontinuation of antidepressants during pregnancy can increase the risk of relapse fivefold.’
The authors looked at 2,200 children with ADHD and 5,600 healthy children.
They found a ‘modest risk’ of increased chance of ADHD in children whose mothers had been prescribed antidepressants during pregnancy.
The study also found there was no heightened risk of a child having autism if a pregnant mother had taken antidepressants – disproving previous beliefs that the drugs were linked the social disorder.
Roy Perlis, who led the research, said the findings should not dissuade mothers-to-be from taking the prescribed medication.
He added that the end to speculation about the link to autism was particularly significant.
Dr Perlis said: ‘We know that untreated depression can pose serious health risks to both a mother and child, so it’s important that women being treated with antidepressants who become pregnant, or who are thinking about becoming pregnant, know that these medications will not increase their child’s risk of autism.’
NICE – the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence – advises that antidepressants are not recommended for most pregnant women, especially during the early stages of a pregnancy.
But they say exceptions can be made depending on the severity of the depression. If a woman is already depressed, withdrawing any treatment could make it far worse.
Experts today welcomed the new study – but said far more research is needed.
Dr Celso Arango, scientific director of the Spanish Centre for Biomedical Research in Mental Health, said: ‘This is a nice study, however, a more robust piece would be an epidemiological cohort study in which subjects were not chosen specifically because they were depressed.
‘It is not clear how big the effect of antidepressant use is. Certainly it is minimal compared to genetic factors.
‘From the child’s perspective it is likely that the potential harm caused by any increased risk of ADHD or autism would be much less than the potential harm of having a mother suffering from depression.
‘And of course, that is without even mentioning the issue of depression causing mothers to die by suicide during pregnancy.’
This article first appeared on ‘Daily Mail’ on 27 August 2014.