Risks linked to epilepsy drug use in pregnancy

Children born to mothers who took medication for epilepsy while pregnant, may be at an increased risk of experiencing early development problems, a new study suggests.

Around 37,000 Irish people have epilepsy, a condition characterised by recurring seizures. These are caused by abnormal electrical impulses in the brain.

According to Norwegian scientists, epilepsy is relatively common in women of childbearing age and around 0.5% of pregnant women take AEDs (antiepileptic drugs) for the condition.

Previous studies have shown that the children of mothers with epilepsy are more likely to be born with physical birth defects. This is thought to be linked to the use of older AEDs during pregnancy.

However, little is known about the effects of these drugs on cognition - the group of mental processes that allow for things such as memory, attention, language development, decision making and problem solving.

The scientists decided to investigate this further. They followed the progress of thousands of mothers from 13-17 weeks of pregnancy, through to when their children were three years old.

They identified 333 children who were exposed to AEDs while still in the womb.

The study found that when the children were 18 months old, those who had been exposed to AEDs had an increased risk of displaying autistic traits and abnormal gross motor skills compared to children who had not been exposed. Gross motor skills are usually acquired by a child during their early years and include being able to stand, walk and run.

The study also found that at the age of three, those who had been exposed to AEDs in the womb also displayed more abnormal gross motor skills, autistic traits and problems with sentences compared to children who had not been exposed to these drugs.

The scientists noted that these increased risks were not found in children whose mothers had epilepsy, but who had not used AEDs while pregnant. The children of fathers with epilepsy did not appear to be affected either.

"Our study - a unique large-scale, population-based study on early developmental outcomes in offspring of parents with epilepsy - confirms that children exposed to anti-seizure medications in the womb had lower scores for key developmental areas than children not exposed to AEDs," explained lead scientist, Dr Gyri Veiby, of Haukeland University Hospital.

The team emphasised the importance of seizure control during pregnancy and acknowledged that this must be balanced with the risk of adverse effects to the baby. It called for further research into the effects of specific AEDs on babies in the womb and whether such effects are long-term.

Details of these findings are published in the journal, Epilepsia.

For more information on epilepsy, see our Epilepsy Clinic here

For more information on pregnancy, see our Pregnancy Clinic here


[Posted: Thu 18/07/2013]

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