Low levels of antidepressants and other psychoactive drugs in water supplies can trigger the expression of genes associated with autism – in fish at least.
The use of antidepressants has increased dramatically over the past 25 years, says Michael Thomas of Idaho State University in Pocatello. Around 80 per cent of each drug passes straight through the human body without being broken down, and so they are present in waste water. In most communities, water purification systems cannot filter out these pharmaceuticals. “They just fly right through,” says Thomas, which means they ultimately find their way into the water supply.
The concentration of these drugs in drinking water is very low – at most, they are present at levels several orders of magnitude lower than the prescription doses. But since the drugs are specifically designed to act on the nervous system, Thomas hypothesised that even a small dose could affect a developing fetus.
Thomas’s group created a cocktail of the anti-epileptic drug carbamazepine and two selective serotonin uptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants, fluoxetine and venlafaxine, at this low concentration. They exposed fathead minnows (Pimephales promelas) to the drugs for 18 days, then analysed the genes that were being expressed in the fishes’ brains.