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Epilepsy Drug, Pregnancy Raise Autism Risk

Study Shows Kids at Risk for Autism When Pregnant Women Take Valproate
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Dec. 1, 2008 -- Women who take the epilepsy drug valproate while pregnant may increase their child's risk of autism, a new study shows.

British researchers looked at 632 children, almost half of whom were exposed to epilepsy drugs during gestation. Nine of the 632 have been diagnosed with autism, and one has shown symptoms of the disorder, Rebecca Bromley, a PhD student and one of the researchers at the University of Liverpool, tells WebMD.

Sixty-four of the children were exposed to valproate during pregnancy, 44 were exposed to lamotrigine, 76 to carbamazepine, 14 to other single-medication therapies, and 51 to polytherapy treatments for the neurological disorder.

The study, published in the journal Neurology, showed that seven of the children with autism had mothers who took epilepsy drugs while pregnant, including four who were exposed to valproate and a fifth who was exposed to valproate and lamotrigine.

The children whose mothers were taking valproate alone for epilepsy were seven times more likely to develop autism, compared to children whose mothers did not have epilepsy and were not taking any drug while pregnant, the study shows.

Counseling Prior to Pregnancy

The risk seen with valproate was not seen with the other epilepsy drugs, Bromley says. None of the children in the study had any known family history of autism.

"The take-home message is that women with epilepsy should be provided with counseling regarding their condition and its treatment prior to pregnancy," Bromley tells WebMD in an email interview. "It is important to consider that not every child is affected."

She says women with epilepsy should not stop taking their current epilepsy treatments without medical consultation with their doctors.

Bromley says three youngsters born to women without epilepsy who were not medicated also were diagnosed with autism.

That's the same rate as reported in the general population, Bromley says. The autistic children were tested at the ages of 1, 3, and 6. Two-thirds of the children were 6 years old by the time the study ended.

"The children were diagnosed independently of our study team by community psychiatrists with normal clinical practice," Bromley tells WebMD.

"This study highlights the importance of pre-conceptual advice, information, and treatment for women with epilepsy from her physician," Bromley says. "Parents who have concerns regarding the development of their child should consult their family doctor."

She says women who are pregnant and require medical treatment should talk to their doctors about possible effects on unborn babies.

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