Drugs, Pregnancy & Lactation

Long-term behavioral follow-up of children exposed to mood stabilizers and antidepressants: A look forward


Much of the focus of reproductive psychiatry over the last 1 to 2 decades has been on issues regarding risk of fetal exposure to psychiatric medications in the context of the specific risk for teratogenesis or organ malformation. Concerns and questions are mostly focused on exposure to any number of medications that women take during the first trimester, as it is during that period that the major organs are formed.

More recently, there has been appropriate interest in the effect of fetal exposure to psychiatric medications with respect to risk for obstetrical and neonatal complications. This particularly has been the case with respect to antidepressants where fetal exposure to these medications, which while associated with symptoms of transient jitteriness and irritability about 20% of the time, have not been associated with symptoms requiring frank clinical intervention.

Concerning mood stabilizers, the risk for organ dysgenesis following fetal exposure to sodium valproate has been very well established, and we’ve known for over a decade about the adverse effects of fetal exposure to sodium valproate on behavioral outcomes (Lancet Neurol. 2013 Mar;12[3]:244-52). We also now have ample data on lamotrigine, one of the most widely used medicines by reproductive-age women for treatment of bipolar disorder that supports the absence of a risk of organ malformation in first-trimester exposure.

Most recently, in a study of 292 children of women with epilepsy, an evaluation of women being treated with more modern anticonvulsants such as lamotrigine and levetiracetam alone or as polytherapy was performed. The results showed no difference in language, motor, cognitive, social, emotional, and general adaptive functioning in children exposed to either lamotrigine or levetiracetam relative to unexposed children of women with epilepsy. However, the researchers found an increase in anti-epileptic drug plasma level appeared to be associated with decreased motor and sensory function. These are reassuring data that really confirm earlier work, which failed to reveal a signal of concern for lamotrigine and now provide some of the first data on levetiracetam, which is widely used by reproductive-age women with epilepsy (JAMA Neurol. 2021 Aug 1;78[8]:927-936). While one caveat of the study is a short follow-up of 2 years, the absence of a signal of concern is reassuring. With more and more data demonstrating bipolar disorder is an illness that requires chronic treatment for many people, and that discontinuation is associated with high risk for relapse, it is an advance in the field to have data on risk for teratogenesis and data on longer-term neurobehavioral outcomes.

There is vast information regarding reproductive safety, organ malformation, and acute neonatal outcomes for antidepressants. The last decade has brought interest in and analysis of specific reports of increased risk of both autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) following fetal exposure to antidepressants. What can be said based on reviews of pooled meta-analyses is that the risk for ASD and ADHD has been put to rest for most clinicians and patients (J Clin Psychiatry. 2020 May 26;81[3]:20f13463). With other neurodevelopmental disorders, results have been somewhat inconclusive. Over the last 5-10 years, there have been sporadic reports of concerns about problems in a specific domain of neurodevelopment in offspring of women who have used antidepressants during pregnancy, whether it be speech, language, or motor functioning, but no signal of concern has been consistent.

In a previous column, I addressed a Danish study that showed no increased risk of longer-term sequelae after fetal exposure to antidepressants. Now, a new study has examined 1.93 million pregnancies in the Medicaid Analytic eXtract and 1.25 million pregnancies in the IBM MarketScan Research Database with follow-up up to 14 years of age where the specific interval for fetal exposure was from gestational age of 19 weeks to delivery, as that is the period that corresponds most to synaptogenesis in the brain. The researchers examined a spectrum of neurodevelopmental disorders such as developmental speech issues, ADHD, ASD, dyslexia, and learning disorders, among others. They found a twofold increased risk for neurodevelopmental disorders in the unadjusted models that flattened to no finding when factoring in environmental and genetic risk variables, highlighting the importance of dealing appropriately with confounders when performing these analyses. Those confounders examined include the mother’s use of alcohol and tobacco, and her body mass index and overall general health (JAMA Intern Med. 2022;182[11]:1149-60).

Given the consistency of these results with earlier data, patients can be increasingly comfortable as they weigh the benefits and risks of antidepressant use during pregnancy, factoring in the risk of fetal exposure with added data on long-term neurobehavioral sequelae. With that said, we need to remember the importance of initiatives to address alcohol consumption, poor nutrition, tobacco use, elevated BMI, and general health during pregnancy. These are modifiable risks that we as clinicians should focus on in order to optimize outcomes during pregnancy.

We have come so far in knowledge about fetal exposure to antidepressants relative to other classes of medications women take during pregnancy, about which, frankly, we are still starved for data. As use of psychiatric medications during pregnancy continues to grow, we can rest a bit more comfortably. But we should also address some of the other behaviors that have adverse effects on maternal and child well-being.

Dr. Cohen is the director of the Ammon-Pinizzotto Center for Women’s Mental Health at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston, which provides information resources and conducts clinical care and research in reproductive mental health. He has been a consultant to manufacturers of psychiatric medications. Email Dr. Cohen at obnews@mdedge.com.

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