Children born to mothers who took the antiepileptic drug sodium valproate during pregnancy are at significantly increased risk of autism and other neruodevelopmental disorders.

The finding came from new research published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry

The research involved kids born to 528 pregnant women in England between 2000 and 2004. Fifty percent (243) of the moms had epilepsy, only 34 of those women did not take antiepileptic drugs while pregnant.

Carbamazepine was taken by 59 of the women, valproate was taken by another 59 women, lamotrigine was taken by 36, forty-one of the females took a combination, and 15 took other medications.

The researchers evaluated the physical and intellectual development of the kids at 12 months, three years, and 6 years of age.

The mothers also provided the scientists with information on whether they ever had to seek professional advice concerning their child’s development, behavior, health, or educational progress.

There were 415 kids who had complete data on all 3 evaluations. A neurodevelopmental disorder was diagnosed in 19 kids by the time they were 6 years old, three of those children were affected by a physical abnormality.

Twelve of these kids had a form of autism, one child also had ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). Three had ADHD alone and another four had dyspraxia – a condition that causes poor physical coordination and uncontrolled clumsiness.

The experts discovered that neurodevelopmental issues were notably more prevalent among those kids whose mothers had epilepsy – 7.46% vs. 1.87% of those whose mothers did not struggle with the condition.

The children whose moms took valproate by itself or with another drug during pregnancy had a considerably higher chance of being diagnosed with a neurodevelopmental condition, compared to those whose mothers took other medications for their disorder.

After examining all of the figures and adjusting for factors likely to impact the results, the investigators found that kids exposed to valproate in the womb were 6 times more likely to have a neurodevelopmental disorder.

Kids who were exposed to valporate and other drugs were 10 times more likely to have a neurodevelopment disorder than those whose moms did not have epilepsy.

Six out of 50 children (12%) whose mothers had taken valproate alone while pregnant had a neurodevelopmental problem, as did 3 out of 20 (15%) of those whose mothers had taken valproate with other treatments.

The women who had epilepsy and did not take drugs to treat the condition during pregnancy did not have any children diagnosed with a neurodevelopment disorder. However, the experts noted, there was only a small number of females in this group.

Boys had a 3 times higher chance of being diagnosed with a nuerodevelopmental disorder. However, no notable links were identified for the mother’s age or IQ, epileptic seizure type, or length of pregnancy.

Although further studies are necessary before conclusions can be drawn, the findings of this research support prior reports that have demonstrated that there are potentially negative effects of valproate on the developing fetus.

For example, one study indicated that kids born to moms who took valproate while pregnant tended to score notably lower in IQ tests by an average of 6 to 9 points at age 3, than kids born to moms who took other anti-epilepsy drugs.

The experts concluded:

“If sodium valproate is the treatment of choice, women should be provided with as much information as possible to enable them to make an informed decision.

But on no account should pregnant women just stop taking the drug for fear of harming their developing child,” the scientists concluded.”

The researchers added that kids born to mothers who took the medication while pregnant need to be observed closely.

Written by Sarah Glynn