Alcohol, SSRIs During Pregnancy Damage Babies

Children exposed to tobacco, cocaine, and/or marijuana during their mothers’ pregnancies perform just as well on academic tests as other children their age, according to a new study from Boston University School of Medicine. However, those exposed prenatally to alcohol score lower in tests of math, reasoning and spelling, even if they do not have fetal alcohol syndrome.

A separate study found consequences in the head sizes of babies whose mothers use antidepressants during pregnancy.

Dr. Ruth Rose-Jacobs studied 119 eleven-year-olds, whose mothers had used cocaine, marijuana or tobacco during their pregnancies, and found no correlation with low scores on academic tests.

“Our results are consistent with growing evidence that intra-uterine exposure to cocaine does not independently predict lower achievement scores in school aged children exposed to multiple other substance exposures and psychosocial stressors,” she said.

The psychosocial stressors noted by Dr. Rose-Jacobs were ones associated with growing up in a low-income urban environment.

The children in the study exposed to alcohol during pregnancy, however, did not fare as well. They scored high on the Children’s Depression Inventory, and they scored low on certain academic tests. Their symptoms of depression could have been a factor in their lower levels of academic achievement.

“The study findings suggest the children with histories of even low-level of intrauterine alcohol exposure who experience school difficulties should be evaluated, particularly for arithmetic skills and symptoms of depression, and offered enhanced educational methods/interventions tailored to their needs,” said Dr. Rose-Jacobs, whose work was published in the journal Vulnerable Children and Youth Studies.

Fetal alcohol syndrome is one of the most common and preventable problems diagnosed in newborn babies, and it can lead to permanent physical deformities, intellectual disabilities, learning disorders, vision abnormalities, and behavioral problems.

The second study was from Sophia Children’s Hospital and Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

Dr. Hanan El Marroun and his colleagues went through the records of nearly 7,696 pregnant women, and found that seven percent (570 women) had symptoms of depression but did not take drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). which affect the levels of certain chemicals in the brain. One percent or 99 of the women in this study did take SSRIs during their pregnancies. Dr. El Marroun and his cohorts used information gained from ultrasound technology performed at 13, 20 and 30 weeks into the pregnancies, as well as measurements taken after the babies were born to form their conclusions.

The women who were depressed but did not take drugs gave birth to babies that had smaller bodies and heads. The participants who did take the SSRIs had babies with smaller heads but bodies of average size. The size of a baby’s head both during the pregnancy and after birth is an accurate indicator of brain volume. Smaller than average head size is an accurate predictor of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders, Dr. El Marroun noted.

However, the researchers did not necessarily recommend that all pregnant women stop using anti-depressants because the benefits of being treated for depression are significant. For example, depressed women can develop severe psychiatric problems after giving birth, at a time when they need to bond and care for their newborns.

“Although our findings add to the current knowledge about the consequences of SSRI use or nonuse in women with depressive symptoms during pregnancy, they are not conclusive,” according to co-author Dr. Henning Tiemeier of the Erasmus Medical Center.

“… Trying to balance the possible negative consequences of untreated maternal depression with the unknown potential negative consequences of SSRIs remains an open debate,” the authors wrote in a report published in the Archives of General Psychiatry. “Prescribing antidepressant medications to pregnant women is a major controversy in current psychiatry.”