Antidepressants are not necessarily effective against autistic spectrum disorders, a new study by Cochrane Researchers concludes. Despite some evidence of benefits in adults diagnosed with autism, they say there is no evidence for any benefits associated with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) in children, who may suffer serious adverse effects as a result of taking the drugs.
Autistic spectrum disorders are difficult to treat because of the range of symptoms experienced by patients, including difficulties with social interactions and communication. SSRIs are among the most commonly prescribed medications, although none have been specifically approved by any drug authority for use in autism. In the UK, most antidepressants are not approved for children for any condition. The rationale behind the use of SSRIs in autism is that they act on serotonin, the same chemical in the body that is responsible for some of the psychological processes affected by the condition.
The researchers included a total of seven trials, involving 271 patients, in their study. The trials evaluated fluoxetine, fluvoxamine, fenfluramine and citalopram. Overall, the researchers found no benefit in the five trials in children and some evidence of serious harm, including one child who suffered a prolonged seizure after taking citalopram. The two trials in adults were very small and thus, although there was some evidence for improvement in symptoms, the authors concluded there was too little evidence for the drugs to be recommended. A major problem with analysing the results was that all the trials used different measures for assessing the drugs' effects.
"Not all the SSRIs currently in use have undergone controlled trials for autistic spectrum disorders, but parents are often anxious to try treatments regardless of the lack of evidence. It's important that doctors are open about the lack of evidence, and explain any risks fully, before prescribing these treatments."