Clinical depression happens at all stages of life, including pregnancy. To battle this depression, many women must take antidepressants.

However, a new scientific analysis reveals that common antidepressants may cause unwanted changes in a developing baby’s brain. The analysis was published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics in April 2018.


For several years now, researchers have suspected a problem with antidepressants in pregnancy. They’ve been most concerned about selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs.

In this particular study, experts analyzed MRI brain scans for 98 infants. Of those, 16 had been exposed to SSRIs during gestation, and 21 had showcased prenatal depression in the mother. The rest served as a control group.

The study was conducted at Columbia University Medical Center and New York State Psychiatric Institute. Researchers analyzed the MRI data for the babies around 3 weeks of age.

What did they find?


Babies exposed to SSRIs during gestation showed huge differences in their brains compared to healthy babies. Even babies born to mothers with untreated depression showed less change.

Specifically, the researchers noticed an expansion of gray matter in several parts of the brain. White matter also increased in its connections between these areas.

This result is important because the brain’s gray matter allows it to take in sensory and motor information. Then, white matter conducts nerve signals between the brain’s regions, instructing the body to move or react to sensory information.


In short, researchers noted that the changes could affect how babies handle emotions in the future. This finding warrants further research on using antidepressants during pregnancy.

According to the American Pregnancy Association, as many as 20 percent of women experience depression during pregnancy.

If taking antidepressants causes unwanted side effects, experts will need to find another solution for mothers.


Antidepressants and Birth Defects

Previous research has left experts unsure about the effects of antidepressants.

However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted its own study. It was published in The BMJ in 2015.

The study found that certain SSRI exposure caused 2 to 3 times more birth defects versus babies not exposed during pregnancy. SSRIs that caused this effect included fluoxetine and paroxetine.

Still, the birth defects caused are rare, even with this stark increase, said the CDC. Experts also did not find a relationship between birth defects and the common SSRI sertraline.

These results do lend credibility to the idea that SSRIs cause other side effects in developing babies.

For now, doctors probably won’t stop their prescription of these medicines for mothers. Depression can result in dangerous emotional situations. In the future, however, experts may look into a safer alternative option.