Researchers from the University of New South Wales, Sydney Children Hospital and colleagues in the Cochrane Library have found anti-depressant medication may have little or no benefits for children suffering from autism spectrum disorders.

Generally, the anti-depressant drugs belong to class of medications called selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs). SSRIs are widely prescribed for children with autism. Of late, prescription of anti-depressants has risen considerably for autism spectrum disorders, the researchers say.

The New South Wales researchers examined the effects of the dose of oral SSRI, amongst 271 study participants and analyzed five past studies that included only children and two that included adults. Antidepressants used in the studies included fluoxetine (Prozac), fluvoxamine (Luvox), fenfluramine (Pondimin) and citalopram (Celexa).

None of these drugs that were administered on the patients for 5-18 weeks, had much effect in improving the symptoms in autistic children, the researchers found.

Instead, many children reported major side-effects associated with the drugs. Children who took medications like citalopram and fluvoxamine and those taking citalopram also experienced severe seizures. Antidepressant fenfluramine was associated with weight loss in children.

Additionally, it was observed that fluvoxamine and fluoxetine reduced obsession and anxiety without causing any major adverse effects in autistic adults.

The researchers also noted that there was lack of obvious follow-ups studies on the other commonly used antidepressants, like sertraline (Zoloft), by the physicians while treating autistic children and adults.

"Decisions about the use of SSRIs for established clinical indications that may co-occur with autism, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression in adults or children, and anxiety in adults, should be made on a case-by-case basis,” says Katrina Williams, lead author of the study.

“Physicians need to be explicit with parents and patients about the limited evidence, risks of SSRI treatment, and other options,” she concludes. The researchers, however, called for more research to ascertain the findings as the results of the study could vary from patient to patient from the autistic spectrum disorder.

The research, which appears in the latest issue of the 'Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews', under the title ‘Selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) for autism spectrum disorders, was funded by the Children Hospital at Westmead and the Financial Markets Foundation for Children.