Recent NGP Alumni Juan Velasquez Featured in GradImpact

GradImpact: Research to Better Understand How Antidepressants Affect Fetal Development

Juan Velasquez, a recent doctoral recipient in neuroscience at the University of Southern California, was awarded a prestigious Chateaubriand Fellowship to study how antidepressants affect fetal development during pregnancy. Somewhere between 12-18% of women experience depression at some point during the course of their pregnancy. Scientists, including Dr. Velasquez, are researching selective-serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a class of antidepressants increasingly prescribed to treat depression in pregnant women, and their effects during fetal development.

Understand the importance of Dr. Velasquez’s work requires a basic understanding of how SSRIs work. Depression is linked to the way chemicals, specifically serotonin, in your brain operate. Researchers believe that an imbalance of serotonin contributes to things like depression, anxiety, and stress. By taking SSRIs, patients alter their brain chemistry to balance levels of serotonin. One of the questions Dr. Velasquez wants to answer is whether changes in a pregnant woman’s brain chemistry can affect the fetus. How would it affect a fetus? The same way a fetus gets its nourishment among other things: through the placenta.

Early results from Dr. Velasquez’s research indicate that SSRIs do cross the placenta and affect the fetal brain, and other studies have shown that taking antidepressants during pregnancy can increase the risk of things like autism and ADHD. However, not treating depression during pregnancy is not an answer Dr. Velasquez will accept. He is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and continues to study this process to ensure the health of both the fetus and the mother. To learn more about Juan’s work visit the USC Graduate School YouTube Channel.