Taking antidepressants during pregnancy could affect fetal brain development, a new study has found. As per researchers, the use of antidepressants, particularly fluoxetine, could affect the development of the prefrontal cortex of the infant's brain, potentially raising the risk of mental health disorders later in their life.

Fluoxetine, available under the brand names Prozac and Sarafem, is an antidepressant prescribed for various conditions, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, bulimia, binge-eating disorder, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, and bipolar depression. The drug works by enhancing serotonin levels in the brain, a naturally occurring mood stabilizer whose deficiency is linked to mental health disorders.

The researchers of the latest study from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus evaluated the impact of fluoxetine use during pregnancy on a developing prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with cognitive functions as well as controlling stress, thoughts, actions, and emotions.

"While it is known that serotonin plays a role in brain development, the mechanisms responsible for this influence, specifically in the prefrontal cortex, have been unclear. The prefrontal cortex, the most evolved brain region, plays a central role in highest-order cognition, which is why we focused our study on finding the answer from this brain area," said the study's lead author Won Chan Oh.

For the study, the researchers investigated how the deficiency and surplus of serotonin affected brain development in mice. They then observed that the serotonin's involvement extends beyond the overall functioning of the brain. It distinctly influences the dynamics of individual connections between neurons, playing a significant role in enhancing the brain's ability to learn and adapt.

The researchers not only noted the drug's ability to cross the placenta but also found that it could enter breast milk.

"Our research uncovers the specific processes at the synaptic level that explain how serotonin contributes to the development of this important brain region during early-life fluoxetine exposure. We are the first to provide experimental evidence of the direct impact of serotonin on the developing prefrontal cortex when fluoxetine is taken during pregnancy, because fluoxetine not only crosses the placenta but also passes into breast milk," Oh added.

However, pregnant women are advised not to stop or change their antidepressant medications unless in consultation with a healthcare provider.

"When people find out they are pregnant, they think about changing how they take their medication, or stopping their medication altogether. However, it is important to talk with your healthcare providers before making any changes to how you take this medication. Your healthcare providers can talk with you about the benefits of treating your condition and the risks of untreated illness during pregnancy. Some people may have a return of their symptoms (relapse) if they stop this medication during pregnancy," a fact sheet about Fluoxetine stated.