Mini-brains show how a common drug freezes cell division in the womb, causing birth defects

Valproic acid — a drug commonly used to treat epilepsy and bipolar disorder – can cause birth defects and developmental disabilities if taken during pregnancy, but the reason for this has long remained a mystery. Now, in a study using mice and human tissue, scientists have found that the drug locks certain embryonic cells into a suspended state where they can’t grow or divide properly.

By forcing key stem cells into this state, called senescence, valproic acid can disrupt brain development in the womb and therefore cause cognitive and developmental impairment down the line, according to the study, published Tuesday, June 14 in the journal PLOS Biology (opens in a new tab). An estimated 30% to 40% of infants exposed to the drug in the womb develop cognitive impairment or autism spectrum disorder, the study authors noted in their report, and these lab studies suggest why this is happening. .

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