The first scientific study to examine the connection between autism and antidepressant medications taken during pregnancy has found that women who take Zoloft, Prozac, and other SSRI-class drugs have about twice the risk of having a child with autism, especially if the mothers take the medications during the first trimester.

The study, which was published Monday in the Archives of General Psychiatry, is a small initial investigation into what is likely to become a better-studied area of what causes children to develop the group of developmental and cognitive problems known as Autism Spectrum Disorder.  Only 20 of the almost 300 children studied had been exposed to antidepressants in utero, so researchers urged further investigation and study.

Women who had a history of mental health treatment but did not take medication during pregnancy were found to have no increased autism risk.  But the study's authors said that the findings are not conclusive enough to recommend holding the medication back from pregnant women who are at risk of mental illness: "The potential risk associated with exposure must be balanced with the risk to the mother or fetus of untreated mental health disorders."

"Poor maternal mental health during pregnancy is a major public health issue," Tim Oberlander, M.D., a professor of developmental pediatrics at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, told "Nontreatment is not an option. While some children might be at risk from an SSRI exposure--and we don't know who, and how that works--there are many mothers and their children as well who will benefit."

Click here for fellow blogger Richard Rende's analysis of how this study is but the first step toward a definitive answer on a possible autism/antidepressant connection.  And for more on autism, see: