Two new studies (CDC study and Slone study), published in the June 28, 2007 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, examine whether or not SSRI antidepressants contribute to birth defects if taken during pregnancy. The results are very reassuring. In an accompanying editorial by Michael F. Greene, MD, he writes:
"...neither SSRIs as a group not individual SSRIs are major teratogens on the order of thalidomide or isotretinoin. Patients and physicians alike would prefer it if there were clear lines separating "risk" and "no risk" and if all studies gave consistent results pointing in the same direction. Unfortunately, this is often not the case, and the data to inform potential risks of SSRIs are no exception. The two reports in this issue of the Journal, together with other available information, do suggest that any increased risks of these malformations in association with the use of SSRIs are likely to be small in terms of the absolute risks."
I've listened to and read some of the media reports on these studies and want to commend the authors and journalists for presenting a balanced picture of the risks. The researchers are quick to point out that these studies do not compare the very small increase in absolute risks that they found for some very rare birth defects to the risks of not treating depression during pregnancy. Inadequate treatment of depression during pregnancy has been linked to self-neglect, poor nutrition, tobacco and alcohol use, lower utilization of prenatal care, exacerbation of postpartum depression, and maternal suicide. Maternal depression increases stress hormones that may also affect placental function and fetal development, disrupt mother-infant bonding, contribute to low birth weight and prematurity, and result in long-term physical and behavioral complications. The Committee of Research on Psychiatric Treatments of the American Psychiatric Association identified treatment of major depression during pregnancy as a priority area for improvement in clinical management.
Studies indicate that between 10-20% of pregnant women experience depression. Women with a history of depression have a 70% chance of a recurrent depressive episode in the first trimester when antidepressant drugs are discontinued prior to or at the point of conception.
Based on the findings from these two studies and what we already know about depression during pregnancy, health-care providers and members of the media are being responsible when they caution pregnant women about stopping the use of SSRIs simply because they are pregnant. The decision about whether to continue or discontinue taking an antidepressant during pregnancy is one that women need to make with all the facts and with the assistance of an informed health-care provider.