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Taking antidepressants during pregnancy does not increase the risk of autism in children, researchers say.

However, women who followed the antidepressant medication -selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) - before pregnancy had a slightly increased risk of giving birth to children with autism than others. Suffering from the mental disorder schizophrenia during pregnancy was associated with a three and half times increased risk of autism, due to which authors have concluded that the disorder may be more linked to maternal mental condition than the medication itself, Reuters reported

"People who are taking these drugs prior to pregnancy often have some underlying psychiatric condition, and what they did find in the study was that having some psychiatric disorder does increase the risk of autism," Dr. Mark Zylka, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, told Reuters Health. Zylka was not involved in the current study. 

Depression is a common mental condition that affects a significant number of women during pregnancy. Genetic predisposition, social factors and hormonal changes are some of the major factors behind this occurrence. Countless studies in the past have shown adverse outcomes associated with antidepressant use in pregnancy, including the risk of cardiac problems, autism or low birth weight in babies.  So many women often hesitate to take antidepressants in pregnancy.  Treating the mental condition early is crucial as a prolonged depression can lead to poor weight gain, preeclampsia, premature labour and trouble in bonding with the new-born.

The current study looked at 626,875 babies in Denmark, all born between 1996 and 2005. Nearly 3,892 children were autistic. 

Maternal use of various types of antidepressants including zoloft, paxil and prozac before and after conceiving the child was analysed and recorded.  Nearly 52 mothers reported taking the medication during pregnancy.  While analysing the link, researchers found a 20 percent additional risk of autism associated with the antidepressant use in pregnancy.  However, as the findings are based on a small population, they ruled out their findings and concluded it as a coincidence.  

But, Dr. Anders Hviid, who led the study at the Statens Serum Institute in Copenhagen along with colleagues found a direct link between antidepressant use before pregnancy and autism in children. Discontinuing the medication months before conception was associated with a 46 percent increased risk of having a child with the disorder. 

The study has been published in the New England Journal of Medicine.