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If you use a drug to guard your wellbeing against epilepsy during pregnancy, you might be putting your future child’s wellness at risk. This is according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which has suggested that one in 20 children whose mothers used the drug valproate to treat epilepsy during pregnancy suffers from an autistic disorder.
The study involved 655,615 children born between 1996 and 2006, noting that 4.42% of those whose mothers used valproate while pregnant were diagnosed with an autism-spectrum disorder, and 2.5% were found to have childhood autism. An autism-spectrum disorder, which can range from mild to more severe forms, affects the mental health of an estimated one in 100 people in the UK.
However, the researchers noted that drugs to treat epilepsy are important for controlling the condition in pregnancy, and so urged for more studies to back up their findings. The drug they focused on was valproate, which is used to other neuro-psychological disorders, as well as epilepsy. The researchers commented, ‘Anti-epileptic drug exposure during pregnancy has been associated with an increased risk for congenital malformations and delayed cognitive development in the offspring, but little is known about the risk of other serious neuropsychiatric disorders.’
Led by Jakob Christensen, the researchers from Aarhus University Hospital in Denmark used national registers to identify children exposed to valproate during pregnancy and diagnosed with autism-spectrum disorders, including Asperger’s syndrome. Of the 5,437 children were diagnosed with autism-spectrum disorder, the researchers identified 2,644 children exposed to anti-epileptic drugs during pregnancy, 508 of whom were exposed to valproate.
The researchers explained, ‘Because autism-spectrum disorders are serious conditions with lifelong implications for affected children and their families, even a moderate increase in risk may have major health importance. Still, the absolute risk of autism-spectrum disorder was less than 5 per cent, which is important to take into account when counselling women about the use of valproate in pregnancy.’
The researchers also warned that this finding should be balanced against the benefits of valproate for epilepsy control. According to Dr Robert Moffat, national director of the National Autistic Society Scotland, ‘The causes of autism are complex and are still being investigated. We therefore urge people not to jump to conclusions about this study and its implications. It’s important that anyone who does have concerns about their medication seeks advice from an appropriate medical professional.’