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Exposure to Valproate Drugs Impairs Fetal Brain Development

According to the Epilepsy Foundation, more than a million American women with epilepsy take anti-seizure drugs regularly, and millions more take the same medications for a variety of chronic medical conditions.

In June 2011, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned women that taking particular epilepsy and migraine medications during pregnancy may impair their children's future intellectual capacity. As part of the warning, the FDA recommended that women considering pregnancy should avoid valproates and take safer alternatives to manage their health.

The valproate drugs include Depacon, Depakote, Depakote CP, Depakote ER, Depakene and Stavzor and their generic equivalents, according to Health.usnews.com. These older FDA-approved drugs - launched before 1980 - are widely prescribed to control epilepsy, migraine headaches, bipolar disorder and other psychiatric problems.

Valproate Drugs Previously Linked to Birth Defects

Valproate medications were previously linked to a higher risk of neural tube defects, according to the FDA. The agency's new warnings are based on recently published data from a Swedish epidemiological study showing a correlation between in utero valproate exposure and lower IQ and cognitive test scores later in life.

A 2010 study of more than 1,200 Swedish teenagers born to women with epilepsy found that those whose mothers took two or more epilepsy drugs during pregnancy performed worse in school than those with no prenatal drug exposure. The findings supported earlier research showing that the ability to absorb and manage information, solve problems and make decisions is reduced in children with prenatal exposure to common epilepsy drugs.

"Our results suggest that exposure to several anti-epileptic drugs in utero may have a negative effect on a child's neurodevelopment," said study author Dr. Lisa Forsberg of Sweden's Karolinska University Hospital in a HealthDay article on Usnews.com. To prevent fetal risk, Forsberg suggested careful pregnancy planning for women with epilepsy, to manage their condition successfully without putting their babies at risk.

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