“Our findings suggest that [SSRIs] can have deleterious consequences when mixed with infection, inflammation, etc.,” said senior researcher John Lukens of the UVA Department of Neuroscience and its Center for Brain Immunology and Glia, as well as the UVA Brain Institute. “Our results might help to explain the rise in autism prevalence over the last 20 years, as this time coincides with the rollout of widespread SSRI usage in the developing world.”
SSRIs are commonly used during pregnancy, being prescribed to 80% of pregnant women who need depression medication. The drugs are widely considered a safe option for managing depression in pregnant women, though there has been some evidence that they can increase the chances of premature delivery as well as up the risk of neurological issues and other health problems in children.
Lukens and his collaborators found that SSRIs can interact with the mother’s immune system to produce a strong inflammatory reaction at the “maternal-fetal interface,” the physical connection between mother and offspring during pregnancy.
The offspring of mouse mothers exposed to inflammation later showed sex-based behavioral changes like the behaviors seen in people with autism, such as diminished communication and decreased interest in social interactions. Such mouse models are widely used as an important autism research tool.