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Pre-Birth Exposure to Anti-Depressants Boosts Child’s Cognitive Skills

Exposure In Utero to SSRIs May Impact Cognitive Skills 12 Years Later

A new study shows that selective serotonin reuptake (SSRI) antidepressant treatment in utero is associated with better performance on a computerized task to measure cognitive skills in 12-year-olds.

For the study, presented during the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) 2018 meeting, researchers followed 51 children from 26 weeks of pregnancy to 12 years old.

The researchers assessed mom’s mood during and after pregnancy and the child’s executive functions (EFs) at 12 years of age. EFs consist of a series of skills that help kids thrive in the classroom and workplace, including flexible, creative problem solving, the ability to focus and pay attention, and self-control, researchers said.

The researchers found that children’s performance varied depending on whether they were exposed to SSRIs before birth. Children with SSRI exposure had better EF skills, even when controlling for mother’s mood during pregnancy and when the child was 12 years old.

Better EFs were also observed in the same children at 6 years, researchers noted.

At 12 years though, unlike at 6 years, differences in SSRI exposure while in utero and differences in the child’s EFs did not vary with measures of the child’s mood (anxiety or depression) or verbal ability, researchers add.

“These are important early findings and further research is needed to examine whether ‘better’ cognitive skills in children with antidepressant exposure reflect a developmental advantage in some ways but also perhaps a risk in other ways, such as perhaps increased anxiety,” said senior author Dr. Tim Oberlander, a developmental pediatrician and investigator at BC Children’s Hospital and BC Women’s Hospital + Health Centre, and a professor in the University of British Columbia Department of Pediatrics.

“Our findings when the children were 3 and 6 years of age indicated increased anxiety, though the absence of this at 12 years might indicate that as EFs improve further, children are able to use them to help calm themselves.”

Researchers are continuing to study these outcomes in a larger cohort of 120 children where they will be able to further examine links between EFs, mood and early development.

“The impact of prenatal antidepressant exposure is not a simple cause and effect,” says Oberlander. “When it comes to assessing the long-term impact of SSRI exposure before birth, genes and family life play a powerful role in influencing how a child will be affected.”

“Depression during pregnancy and beyond is a major public health problem for mothers and their children,” he added. “Non-treatment is never an option. It is really important that pregnant women discuss all treatment options with their physicians or midwives.”

Source: Pediatric Academic Societies

Exposure In Utero to SSRIs May Impact Cognitive Skills 12 Years Later

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Exposure In Utero to SSRIs May Impact Cognitive Skills 12 Years Later. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 7 May 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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