Zofran, SSRIs, and Serotonin: The Birth Defect Connection

    birth defect

    Pharmaceutical giants face thousands of lawsuits each year. This is due to unexpected or hidden side effects that either injure or kill consumers each year. Two drugs currently under fire can harm developing babies—and for similar reasons. We’ll explore birth defect risks for Zofran as well as certain antidepressants.

    What Are SSRIs?

    Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, are an increasingly popular type of antidepressant currently on the market. This category encompasses a variety of brands, from Celexa to Prozac, but each drug works in a similar fashion. Simply put, they keep more serotonin circulating, which is crucial for stimulating happy emotions. They’re referred to as “selective” for this reason—they don’t affect any other neurotransmitters, from what experts can tell. As is true with all antidepressants, they carry a few side effects, including:

    • Dizziness
    • Nausea
    • Insomnia
    • Vomiting
    • Digestive distress
    • Nervousness or agitation

    Most of these risks are usually not seriously detrimental to the patient. There is one exception, however: Pregnant women and increased birth defect risks.

    How Zofran Increases Birth Defect Risks

    Zofran is another prescription drug approved by the FDA, though it’s not an antidepressant. This drug was designed to treat nausea and intense vomiting brought upon by cancer treatment. Somewhat ironically, it works in the opposite way that SSRIs do: by blocking serotonin, not blocking its reuptake. When a patient undergoes chemotherapy, serotonin is released in the gut (which is sometimes referred to as the “second brain” in the medical community), which sends a signal to the brain telling a patient to vomit.

    Because it’s so effective at quelling vomiting, which can be so debilitating that the patient cannot keep down any food or water, it’s also been used to treat a serious form of morning sickness called hyperemesis gravidarum. It occurs in a relatively small percentage of pregnant women. However, just like chemotherapy, it can keep pregnant women from holding down water or food.

    The problem with prescribing Zofran during pregnancy? The drug was designed to treat cancer patients, not pregnant women. While it may alleviate the same symptoms (uncontrollable vomiting), it doesn’t treat the same cause. Usual side effects of Zofran include:

    • Dizziness
    • Stomach pain
    • Constipation
    • Headache
    • Muscle spasms

    Much like SSRIs, Zofran has one severe complication: it increases birth defect risks.

    Serotonin and Fetal Brain Development

    Both SSRIs and Zofran can cause birth defects when prescribed to an expectant mother because they cross the placental barrier and because they alter the mother’s serotonin levels. One little-known fact is that serotonin, while a neurotransmitter, first plays a role in physical development. This is true in all mammals, particularly regarding brain development. In fact, scientists believe a developing fetus relies on the mother’s serotonin levels to develop properly.

    Beyond forming the brain, serotonin also affects circadian rhythms, cardiovascular regulation, sexual behavior and certain gastrointestinal functions. It’s easy to see, then, why taking a drug that alters a mother’s natural serotonin levels could result in a birth defect. Common birth defect risks for both SSRIs and Zofran include:

    • Cranioskeletal deformities, such as cleft palate
    • Cardiovascular defects, such as holes in the walls of the heart
    • Other musculoskeletal defects

    Because few clinical trials can involve pregnant women, these drugs are often cleared for use. In fact, few doctors know about this potential birth defect risk. As a result, many parents are filing birth defect lawsuits against drug makers. Complaints are for marketing the drugs to doctors for use in pregnant women and failing to warn them about the potential risk associated with using them.

    What You Can Do

    If you or someone you know has taken an SSRI or Zofran and delivered a child with any of these birth defects, you may be eligible to file a lawsuit. Before you get started, it’s a good idea to contact an SSRI or Zofran attorney who can review your case, has knowledge with mass torts of this nature and can help you be successful making your claim.


    1. “Antidepressants: Safe During Pregnancy?,” Mayo Clinic (2015).
    2. McLean, Jesse. “Birth Defects Blamed on Unapproved Morning Sickness Treatment.” The Toronto Star. Accessed April 28, 2015.
    3. “Placental Transfer of Ondansetron during Early Human Pregnancy.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. Accessed April 28, 2015.
    4. “Depression (major Depressive Disorder).” Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs). Accessed April 28, 2015.
    5. “Zofran Oral: Uses, Side Effects, Interactions, Pictures, Warnings & Dosing – WebMD.” WebMD. Accessed April 28, 2015.
    6. “Maternal Serotonin Is Crucial for Murine Embryonic Development.” Maternal Serotonin Is Crucial for Murine Embryonic Development. November 13, 2013. Accessed April 28, 2015.

    Lori Polemenakos is Director of Consumer Content and SEO strategist for LeadingResponse, a legal marketing company. An award-winning journalist, writer and editor based in Dallas, Texas, she's produced articles for major brands such as, Yahoo!, MSN, AOL, Xfinity,, and edited several published books. Since 2016, she's published hundreds of articles about Social Security disability, workers' compensation, veterans' benefits, personal injury, mass tort, auto accident claims, bankruptcy, employment law and other related legal issues.

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