Pregnancy

Some Drugs Taken During Pregnancy Double Brain Damage Risk

A new study has now linked another drug to neurological risk for children
BY Jennifer Margulis TIMEAugust 26, 2022 PRINT

A new study uncovered yet another risk to unborn babies, joining a list of common treatments and practices that can lead to neurological issues for children.

A recent study suggests that prenatal exposure to anti-seizure medications may increase the risk of child neurodevelopmental disorders. The peer-reviewed paper was published in the journal JAMA Neurology on May 31.

A team of 17 scientists, most of whom are from Scandinavia, studied more than 4.5 million babies who were exposed to various anti-seizure medicines that their mothers were taking while the babies were in utero.

The scientists analyzed the effects of several anti-seizure drugs, including topiramate and valproate, as well as prenatal exposure to combinations of anti-seizure medicines, such as taking levetiracetam with carbamazepine and taking lamotrigine with topiramate.

These anticonvulsant drugs, which go by a variety of different brand names, are often used by people suffering from epilepsy. They’re taken to prevent seizures, as well as to prevent migraines, bipolar spectrum disorders, and other neurological issues.

Double to Quadruple the Risk of Autism

The Scandinavian researchers found that two anti-seizure medications, topiramate and valproate, were associated with a statistically significant increased risk of intellectual disability and autism-spectrum disorders.

In fact, babies exposed during gestation were two to four times more likely to have cognitive issues compared to children who weren’t exposed.

The risk was similarly heightened for children exposed to combinations of levetiracetam with carbamazepine and lamotrigine with topiramate.

The effect was particularly strong on babies exposed to topiramate. These children weren’t only at higher risk for neurodevelopmental defects, but they also had a higher risk of low birth weight and congenital anomalies.

Some Drugs Are Better Than Others

Despite the negative effects of these medications on children, some women, especially those suffering from severe epilepsy, are told by their doctors that they can’t safely stop taking prescription medications during pregnancy. So what’s a pregnant woman (or a couple trying to conceive) to do?

Fortunately, the drugs gabapentin and pregabalin showed no increased risk of autism spectrum disorders or intellectual delays when taken during pregnancy. Both of these drugs are used to treat seizures and provide an alternative for pregnant women suffering from epilepsy.

Pregnant women taking one of these anti-seizure medications for a health condition other than preventing seizures should consider other options. Topiramate and valproate are commonly used to treat migraines, but this study suggests that women of childbearing age who are prescribed them need to find other ways to get relief if they’re pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant.

Alternative Migraine Treatments

Natural options that can help prevent and cure severe headaches and migraines that are becoming more accepted by mainstream medical doctors include making sure that you’re getting enough magnesium—through food, supplements, and Epsom salt baths.

Testing for food intolerances and other triggers can also be helpful, as can trying natural anti-inflammatories, such as turmeric.

A 2021 double-blind placebo-controlled study published in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine found that curcumin, the main ingredient in turmeric, improved headaches and lessened inflammation.

Turmeric also appears to be safe and perhaps even beneficial during pregnancy, according to other recently published research, although pregnant women should use caution, especially if taking it as a supplement and not as a culinary spice or a whole food.

Precautions During Pregnancy

Pregnancy is a time to be especially careful about exposure to environmental toxins, including prescription medications; over-the-counter drugs, such as acetaminophen; glyphosate and other herbicides; obesogens; and even synthetic perfumes.

Scientists (and the public) have known since the 1970s that prenatal exposure to certain drugs can be devastating to infant health—whether the effects are seen at birth or not until many years later.

The drug thalidomide is one such example. Thalidomide was first administered in Germany as a sedative in the late 1950s. Without prior testing, doctors began prescribing the drug to pregnant women to treat anxiety and morning sickness.

Between the 1950s and 1960s, thousands of babies were born with severe birth defects in Germany, Australia, and the UK, as The New York Times reported in 2020.

Many had no legs, missing fingers, and malformed organs. What did they all have in common? Their mothers took thalidomide during pregnancy.

The Diethylstilbestrol Disaster

Thalidomide was never officially approved in the United States for use during pregnancy—thanks to a Canadian-born drug reviewer at the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Frances Kelsey, who analyzed the data closely and defied her colleagues and the drug industry by boldly insisting that the safety profile wasn’t reassuring enough to warrant approval. Unfortunately, diethylstilbestrol was.

Diethylstilbestrol (DES) is a synthetic estrogen. Millions of women in the United States and around the world were told by their doctors that this synthetic hormone was safe to use during pregnancy to prevent complications and miscarriages.

According to a 2013 study from the journal Birth Defects Research, it did just the opposite.

It turns out that prenatal exposure to DES causes offspring to experience infertility and deformed reproductive tracts.

DES sons are at a higher risk for testicular and prostate cancers. DES daughters have an increased risk of preterm labor, pregnancy loss, and stillbirth. They’re also more susceptible to breast cancer and cervical cancer. In fact, young women born to mothers who took DES during their pregnancy are 40 times more likely to get cervical cancer.

Ironically, a drug that doctors urged women to use to “protect” against pregnancy loss actually leads to more miscarriages.

Autism Caused by Environmental Assaults

The new Scandinavian research is important for another reason. It confirms what parents of children with autism have been saying for years: that autism and other neurological disorders, including encephalitis and encephalopathy, can be caused by environmental exposures to neurotoxins.

In China, rates of autism have climbed to one in every 30 children, according to new research. A peer-reviewed analysis published in 2017 in the United State by a Stanford-educated atmospheric scientist confirms that the rise in autism is real, that it can’t be explained by genetics, and that it must be caused by environmental exposures.

In-utero environmental assaults on the fetus linked to autism include over-vaccination during pregnancy, over-exposure to ultrasound, and acetaminophen (the main ingredient in Tylenol.)

A growing baby appears to be especially vulnerable when the exposure happens during the first three months of gestation. A 2017 Kaiser Permanente study published in JAMA Pediatrics examined the children of more than 45,000 women who received the influenza vaccination during pregnancy. These researchers discovered that first-trimester flu vaccination was linked to a greater risk of autism.

A larger study, this one of 1.2 million pregnancies in Finland, found that when mothers have elevated markers of inflammation, their children have a 43 percent higher risk of developing autism than mothers without inflammatory markers. Both vaccination and infections can cause inflammation.

Ultrasound Exposure Also Linked to Brain Damage

In 2016, researchers from the University of Washington conducted a study published in the journal Autism Research examining the effects of ultrasounds on fetuses. The researchers discovered an association between prenatal exposure to ultrasounds during the first trimester and an increased risk of autism spectrum disorders and lower IQs.

This study adds to a growing body of scientific evidence—largely ignored by the medical establishment, including work done in Australia, the UK, Canada, Ireland, and the United States—that challenges the safety of prenatal ultrasounds. Indeed, scientific research has shown that ultrasound gel exposes pregnant women to endocrine disruptors; and scientists have also found disrupted migratory pathways of developing brain cells in the fetuses of mice with mothers that were exposed to ultrasound.

In the face of conflicting results and industry pressure (ultrasounds are big business, according to market analysts), there’s a need for better-designed, longitudinal studies with large cohorts of gestating babies exposed to ultrasounds and a control group that isn’t. In the meantime, however, pregnant women need to be careful to avoid anything that may be contributing to brain disorders among children.

“We should voice some caution,” Dr. Manuel Casanova, a professor of biomedical sciences at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine in Greenville and a leading authority on autism, said in a 2011 interview.

Pregnant women “have no idea,” Casanova said.

Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is an award-winning journalist and author of “Your Baby, Your Way: Taking Charge of Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Parenting Decisions for a Happier, Healthier Family.” A Fulbright awardee and mother of four, she has worked on a child survival campaign in West Africa, advocated for an end to child slavery in Pakistan on prime-time TV in France, and taught post-colonial literature to non-traditional students in inner-city Atlanta. Learn more about her at JenniferMargulis.net
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