January 15, 2024
Treatment for ADHD among women of reproductive age is increasingly common.
That means we need to know whether ADHD medications have any tendency to increase the risk of birth defects. Previous studies have looked mostly at ADHD medications that are central nervous system stimulants, especially methylphenidate and amphetamines.
Atomoxetine is the most widely prescribed non-stimulant for treating ADHD. It acts indirectly, by selectively inhibiting the removal of norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that mobilizes the brain and body for action.
To explore whether atomoxetine might be associated with any higher risk of birth defects, an international study team examined nationwide population data from four Nordic countries with universal single-payer health insurance systems – Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Iceland – along with nationwide data from the U.S. Medicaid system, which is likewise single-payer, and covers roughly half of all births in the U.S.
They compared the prevalence of major birth defects among infants born to women exposed to atomoxetine in the first trimester (three months) of pregnancy to the prevalence among infants born to women not exposed to any ADHD drug during the period beginning three months before their last menstrual period and concluding at the end of the first trimester.
The team adjusted for maternal characteristics such as maternal age, calendar year of delivery, childbirth and medical characteristics, psychiatric conditions, high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney disease, obesity, and smoking.
In more than 2.4 million births in the four Nordic countries, and almost 1.8 million births in the U.S., there was absolutely no sign of increased prevalence of major infant malformations among infants born to mothers taking atomoxetine.
More specifically looking at heart defects, there was again no significant association with maternal atomoxetine use, either in the Nordic population, the U.S. population, or the combined populations.
For limb malformations, there was again no significant association between maternal atomoxetine use and birth defects in the combined populations. There was an appearance of a significant association in the Nordic population, but that was based on only 5 instances, and because there were zero instances in the U.S. population, there was no net association at all in the combined population of more than 4.2 million.
The team concluded, “We found no increased prevalence of major congenital malformations overall associated with atomoxetine use in early pregnancy. The increased prevalence of limb malformations in the Nordic countries was not observed in the US. … Given the low absolute risk of both of these outcomes, these results are reassuring from a public health perspective and provide important information in the consideration of whether to continue treatment with atomoxetine during pregnancy.”
Gabriella Bröms, Sonia Hernandez-Diaz, Krista F. Huybrechts, Brian T. Bateman, Eskild Bendix Kristiansen, Kristjana Einarsdóttir, Anders Engeland, Kari Furu, Mika Gissler, Pär Karlsson, Kari Klungsøyr, Anna-Maria Lahesmaa-Korpinen, Helen Mogun, Mette Nørgaard, Johan Reutfors, Henrik Toft Sørensen, Helga Zoega, MA, and Helle Kieler, “Atomoxetine in Early Pregnancy and the Prevalence of Major Congenital Malformations: A Multinational Study,” Journal of Clinical Psychiatry (2023) 84(1): 22m14430, https://doi.org/10.4088/JCP.22m14430.