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Seizure disorders: Edited by Josemir W. Sander

Managing antiepileptic drugs during pregnancy and lactation

Sabers, Annea; Tomson, Torbjörnb

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Current Opinion in Neurology: April 2009 - Volume 22 - Issue 2 - p 157-161
doi: 10.1097/WCO.0b013e32832923d7
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In three to five of 1000 births, the mother has epilepsy [1]. With the use of antiepileptic drugs (AEDs) for other indications, the proportion of women taking AEDs during pregnancy and lactation is substantial. In this situation the risks associated with drug exposure to the fetus and newborn need to be balanced against the risks incurred by seizures, and knowledge of pharmacokinetic alterations becomes particularly important for AED optimization.

This review provides an overview of the pharmacokinetics of AEDs in pregnancy and lactation and possible clinical consequences (Table 1). Related aspects, for example teratogenic risks and vitamin supplementation, are not covered.

Table 1
Table 1:
Management of antiepileptic drugs before and during pregnancy and lactation

Planning pregnancy

Maternal AED plasma concentrations are important as they are related to the antiepileptic effects in the treated woman as well as reflecting the drug exposure to the fetus. The use of AEDs during pregnancy has been associated with increased rates of birth defects and neuro-cognitive deficits [2–4,5••] and these risks seem to be related to the number of AEDs, drug dosages and thus also presumably to drug concentrations [6–8]. Given the importance of drug exposure during the first gestational weeks, appropriate prepregnancy counseling is critical. Therefore, and because many pregnancies are unplanned, the possibility of a future pregnancy always has to be considered when prescribing AEDs to women of childbearing potential. The information has to be repeated regularly and needs to be qualified and balanced to avoid the risk of abrupt drug withdrawal because of maternal fear of adverse effects of the medication on the developing fetus [9].

Although recent studies indicate differences between AEDs in teratogenic potential [10,11•], it is beyond the scope of this review to discuss drug selection for women with epilepsy who plan to become pregnant. However, if pregnancy is planned in advance, this is the appropriate time to reassess AED treatment. For those with active epilepsy, treatment should aim at seizure control (in particular of generalized tonic–clonic seizures) with monotherapy at the lowest effective dose. This should be tried out and assessed before pregnancy, and when it is achieved it is of value to determine the optimal AED plasma concentration in the individual patient before pregnancy. This can be used as reference to help in the interpretation of drug levels obtained during pregnancy [12•].

Estradiol containing oral contraceptives induce the metabolism of lamotrigine [13] and may have similar effects on valproate [14]. Therefore, it is advisable to also monitor plasma concentrations of these AEDs when a woman plans to discontinue hormonal oral contraceptives to become pregnant. The AED dosage may need to be reduced to avoid unnecessarily high drug exposure to the fetus at the time of conception.

Pharmacokinetic alterations of antiepileptic drugs in pregnancy

Pregnancy can affect the pharmacokinetics of AEDs at all levels, absorption, distribution, metabolism and elimination [15], resulting in declining plasma concentrations of AEDs as pregnancy progresses. Increased renal elimination and especially increased metabolic clearance due to enzyme induction are the clinically most important mechanisms. The latter appears to be particularly marked for AEDs that are cleared by glucuronidation [16•,17]. Decreased binding to plasma proteins may contribute to declining total plasma concentrations of AEDs that are highly protein bound, for example, phenytoin, valproate and tiagabine. However, although decreased binding will result in lower total drug levels (bound plus unbound), the unbound and pharmacologically active concentration of the drug remains relatively unchanged. As the unbound concentration also reflects the drug exposure of the fetus, is it recommended, if possible, to monitor the free concentrations instead of the total concentrations of the highly protein bound drugs to avoid unnecessary dose increase. This is particularly important for valproate, which is associated with the most pronounced teratogenic potential [10].

The plasma concentrations tend to decrease in pregnancy for many of the AEDs and these alterations have to be taken into consideration to minimize the risk of seizure deterioration as pregnancy progress (for review see [18,19•]). Although the effects of pregnancy on drug disposition depend on the pharmacokinetic properties of the AED, the extent of these effects also varies between patients. The effects of pregnancy on plasma concentrations of different AEDs are summarized in Table 2[20].

Table 2
Table 2:
Some aspects on pharmacokinetics of antiepileptic drugs in pregnancy and during lactation

Total concentrations of phenobarbital decline on average by 50%, of phenytoin by 50–60%, and of carbamazepine by up to 25%. The decline in unbound concentrations of carbamazepine is even smaller, and of phenytoin 20–30% [21–24]. Although valproate is predominantly eliminated by glucuronidation, unbound plasma concentrations are changed only slightly whereas total plasma concentrations of valproate could decrease by up to 50% by the end of the third trimester [25,26].

Among the newer generation AEDs, it is only lamotrigine that has been investigated in detail. Lamotrigine undergoes hepatic glucuronidation and this process is induced by pregnancy [16•]. The clearance of lamotrigine increases progressively until the 32nd gestational week when it may be two to three times higher than before pregnancy [27–31]. After delivery the lamotrigine elimination rate drops rapidly, within days, to reach the prepregnant level within the first 2–3 weeks postpartum. The extent to which pregnancy affects lamotrigine kinetics varies considerably between patients and white women have been reported to have higher plasma clearance during pregnancy than black women [12•]. Comedication also clearly has an influence. The effects of pregnancy on lamotrigine plasma concentrations are minor in women on comedication with valproate, a drug known to inhibit glucuronidation [32].

The active metabolite of oxcarbazepine, the monohydroxy metabolite (MHD) derivative, is also mainly metabolized by glucuronide conjugation [17]. The clearance of MHD is, thus, also increased substantially during pregnancy. Plasma concentrations of MHD decline by 36 to 50% in the last trimester [17,33], which is slightly less than with lamotrigine, but more data are still needed for better understanding of oxcarbazepine kinetics.

Levetiracetam is mainly eliminated renally, but approximately 25% of the dose is metabolized by enzymatic hydrolysis [34]. Recent data have demonstrated that the plasma level of levetiracetam is reduced to about 50% in the third trimester and increase to prepregnant levels within the first 2 weeks postpartum [35,36•]. The mechanism for this effect of pregnancy remains to be clarified.

No systematic studies have assessed the gestational influence on the pharmacokinetics of other newer generation AEDs. However, at delivery maternal plasma concentrations of topiramate and gabapentin were not markedly different from concentrations 2–3 weeks postpartum in the three reported cases on each drug. Two case reports suggest slightly lower maternal plasma concentrations of zonisamide at delivery compared with the first 2 weeks postpartum [39,40•].

Several other new AEDs, for example, pregabalin, tiagabine and vigabatrin have been marketed within the last 10 to 15 years, but no published data on the pharmacokinetics during pregnancy exist for these drugs. Both pregabalin and vigabatrin have negligible protein binding and are eliminated unchanged renally. Any change in serum concentrations of these drugs can be expected to mainly reflect the increase in renal glomerular filtration. Tiagabine, on the contrary, is highly protein bound (>90%) and extensively metabolized. Therefore, considerable gestational changes can be expected. Because of the effect of displacement of binding sites of tiagabine as for other high protein bound drugs, it is likely that a decrease in total tiagabine concentration is more pronounced than the drop in the active unbound concentration.

Seizure control and changes in antiepileptic drug levels in pregnancy

Those with well controlled epilepsy are probably overrepresented among women with epilepsy that become pregnant. In this population, even a single breakthrough seizure induced by pharmacokinetic alterations may pose serious consequences for everyday life. In addition, poorly controlled tonic–clonic seizures during pregnancy may adversely affect maternal health as well as fetal development [41].

The largest prospective single study, including 1736 pregnancies, reported that 59% remained seizure free throughout pregnancy [42]. Other studies have indicated that the risk of seizures during pregnancy is less if the prepregnancy year was seizure free [43•]. However, the risk of seizure deterioration during pregnancy varies widely among different studies. In a review of data published since 1980, covering more than 4000 pregnancies, an increase in seizures was found in on average 25% of pregnancies (range 13–47%) [44••]. Seizure control was unchanged from before pregnancy in on average 57% of the women.

In the large prospective European Epilepsy and Pregnancy Registry study, treatment with oxcarbazepine was associated with an increased risk of seizures, and the need for dose adjustments was significantly related to treatment with oxcarbazepine and lamotrigine [42]. The Australian Pregnancy Register reported that the control of convulsive seizures was significantly worse with lamotrigine compared with valproate or carbamazepine [45]. These observations could be a reflection of the fact that lamotrigine and oxcarbazepine are the two AEDs with the most pronounced gestational-related pharmacokinetic changes. In fact, the drop in lamotrigine plasma concentrations in pregnancy has frequently been associated with an increase in seizures [30,31]. A recent study of 53 pregnancies with lamotrigine treatment clearly demonstrated the correlation between declining drug concentrations and increase in seizures [12•]. A decrease in lamotrigine plasma concentration from prepregnancy levels by 35% or more was a significant predictor of seizure deterioration.

Although the association between pharmacokinetic alterations and seizure control has been most convincingly demonstrated for lamotrigine, it is reasonable to assume that for AEDs in general declining active drug concentrations in pregnancy indicate an increased risk of seizures. This is the justification for regular drug level monitoring during pregnancy of AEDs where alterations can be expected but their magnitude is difficult to predict. In settings where therapeutic drug monitoring is unavailable, it might sometimes be advisable to double the dose of lamotrigine and increase the dose of oxcarbazepine/levetiracetam gradually from the second trimester.

The safety of antiepileptic drugs and breastfeeding

Women with epilepsy are in general encouraged to breastfeed their infants as the benefits of breastfeeding are considered to outweigh the potential adverse effects of continued AED exposure for the nursed infant [46]. The amount of AED exposure for a breast-fed infant depends on the maternal plasma concentration of the drug, the fraction of the AED transferred to the breast milk and on the infant absorption and elimination capacity. AEDs are transferred into breast milk in an inverse proportion to their extent of protein binding, and AEDs with low protein binding, low molecular weight and high lipophilicity are most likely to accumulate in breast milk [15] (Table 2) (for review see [20]). Phenytoin, valproate and tiagabine are more than 90% protein bound and, therefore, have low concentrations in breast milk, whereas the amount of carbamazepine, phenobarbital, oxcarbazepine, lamotrigine, topiramate and zonisamide that pass into breast milk are low to moderate. Ethosuximide, vigabatrin, gabapentin, pregabalin and levetiracetam have no protein binding and it should, therefore, be expected that drug passage into breast milk is extensive and the concentration equivalent to the maternal plasma level. This has been confirmed in studies on gabapentin and levetiracetam [35,36•,47]. The plasma concentrations in the breast-fed infants, however, are low in each case, indicating an efficient elimination in newborns.

For neonatal or prenatal infants, there is a risk that the capacity of the immature drug metabolizing pathways is low and medications may be accumulated at concentrations with a pharmacological potential. This has been demonstrated for barbiturates with a risk of sedation of the infant [48] and may also be applicable to AEDs that are eliminated by glucuronidation, for example, lamotrigine and the monohydroxy derivative of oxcarbazepine. Infant plasma concentrations of lamotrigine up to 40% of the maternal plasma concentration have been reported [27]. In addition, the free fraction seems to be higher in the plasma of the nursing infant than in the mother. A recent study demonstrated that the infant/maternal plasma concentration ratio for unbound lamotrigine was 30.9% compared with 18.3% for total lamotrigine [49•]. The same study demonstrated a considerable interpersonal variability in the ratio of infant/maternal plasma concentration. However, no study has reported clinically relevant adverse effects in lamotrigine exposed breast-fed infants. Nor did the only available case report of oxcarbazepine and breastfeeding indicate any adverse effects in the suckling infant [50].


The effect of pregnancy on the pharmacokinetics of AEDs is difficult to predict. Drug levels should, therefore, preferably be monitored regularly throughout pregnancy, in particular if the woman is treated with AEDs known to display pronounced changes in plasma concentrations. Monitoring should be tailored to the clinical characteristics of the individual patient. It is evident that there are important gaps in the current knowledge and it is essential to establish studies which prospectively and systematically explore this area.

Uncited references



No funding has been received for this work. Anne Sabers has received speaker's fee and/or research grants from the manufacturers of levetiracetam (UCB Pharma) and rufinamide and zonisamide (Eisai). Torbjörn Tomson received speaker's fees and/or research grants from the manufacturers of carbamazepine and oxcarbazepine (Novartis), carisbamate and topiramate (Johnson and Johnson), ethosuximide, gabapentin, phenytoin and pregabalin (Pfizer), lamotrigine (GSK), lacosamide and levetiracetam (UCB Pharma), tiagabine, valproic acid and vigabatrin (Sanofi-Aventis), rufinamide and zonisamide (Eisai).

References and recommended reading

Papers of particular interest, published within the annual period of review, have been highlighted as:

• of special interest

•• of outstanding interest

Additional references related to this topic can also be found in the Current World Literature section in this issue (pp. 000–000).

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antiepileptic drugs; epilepsy; lactation; pharmacokinetics; pregnancy

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