The study, which analysed over 2 million test results in Denmark, found that children who were exposed to antidepressants before birth scored lower than unexposed children in standardised maths tests, but did not perform differently in language tests. Of the 575,369 children involved in the study, 10,198 (1.8%) were exposed prenatally to antidepressants.

The mean mathematics test score (out of 100) in children exposed to antidepressants during pregnancy was 52.1, compared to 57.4 in children who were not exposed (adjusted difference: -2.2).

In contrast, the study did not find performance differences in language tests, with the mean score in children exposed to antidepressants during pregnancy at 53.4, compared to 56.6 in children who were not exposed (adjusted difference: -0.1)

The research, published today in JAMA, was led by Dr Jakob Christensen, Consultant Neurologist and Associate Professor at Aarhus University, Denmark.

“These findings raise concerns on the potential neurodevelopment consequences of being exposed to antidepressants prenatally”, commented Dr Christensen. “However, the risks of treating depression with medication need to be balanced against the risk of not treating depression in pregnancy which, in some pregnant women can lead to serious consequences, including suicide and a higher risk of preterm birth.”

According to the World Health Organisation, one in 10 women experience depression during pregnancy2, with previous studies indicating between 2 and 8% of women receiving antidepressants during their pregnancy3. Previous research has highlighted an increased risk of psychiatric disorders in offspring exposed to antidepressants4.

“Whilst this research highlights a potential implication of taking antidepressants during pregnancy, we would like to stress the importance of providing adequate medical and mental health support to women during this time. More research is warranted to investigate these findings in more detail.”

The research was based on children born between 1997 and 2009 who participated in the Danish National Test Program for public school children.