A new study from Johns Hopkins University has found that “prenatal SSRI exposure was almost three times as likely in boys with autism spectrum disorders relative to typical development, with the greatest risk when exposure is during the first trimester.”

The study, to be published in the May print issue of Pediatrics, was posted online April 14, co-authored by Li-ching Lee, an associate scientist in the department of epidemiology at the university’s Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, MD.

Boys born after their mothers had taken SSRIs (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, or serotonin-specific re-uptake inhibitors) such as Celexa, Lexapro, Paxil, Prozac and Zoloft during pregnancy were also more likely to exhibit developmental delays, according to the findings. Rates were highest with exposure during the third trimester, study authors found.

The study examined 966 mother-child pairs, including 800 male children. Approximately 500 children were diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), 154 with a developmental delay (DD) and 320 were typically developing children (controls), with the average age of the child population at 4 years old.

But the field is divided on the issue.

Another study published in the December 19, 2013 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine found no connection between the two factors. That study was four times larger, including nearly 4,000 children diagnosed with ASD.

In the current study, Dr. Eric Hollander, director of the autism and obsessive-compulsive disorder program at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City told Health Day News, “If the risk of autism is around one percent now, and you raise it to three percent, that still means that 97 percent of the time you won’t have an autistic spectrum disorder. The chances are still overwhelming that they won’t have a child with an autism spectrum disorder.”

The one thing that is clear is that more research into the issue is needed, said Dr. Eyal Shemesh, chief of pediatric behavioral and developmental health at Mt. Sinai Kravis Children’s Hospital in New York City.

“It’s very hard to do a definitive study of this… we need to look further. The one thing we really know with certainty is that depression is not good for pregnancy.

“Women who are depressed have bad outcomes and their kids don’t do well. We need to treat depression and there are psychotherapy options and medication options. You need to make a reasoned decision with your doctor. I would be very concerned about any woman just stopping her medication,” Shemesh said.