Mini-brains show how 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 disorders if taken during pregnancy, but the reason why has long been a mystery. Now, in a study using mice and human tissue, scientists discovered that the medication locks some embryonic cells into a suspended state where they can’t properly grow or divide.

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

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