Dallas is on the verge of launching a small study to give fluox-
etine, the generic form of Prozac, to women who have cho-
sen to continue their Down syndrome pregnancies, and then
to the children for the first two years of their lives. The idea
springs from work by Bartesaghi, the researcher in Bologna,
who has reported remarkable results administering fluox-
etine to a different strain of mice with a condition that mimics
Down syndrome. The antidepressant boosts the availability of
serotonin, a neurotransmitter important in the development
of neurons. In 2014 in the journal Brain, Bartesaghi reported
that the affected mice had a normal number of neurons after
birth and 45 days later. The mice were given a memory
test. “They acted the same as normal mice,” she says. “They
Bianchi says the Italian mouse data are impressive, but
she is concerned about giving large doses of Prozac—the trial
calls for as much as 80 milligrams a day—to women who have
no psychiatric disorder. Safety concerns will always be an
obstacle to fetal treatment. “We would feel horrible if we came
up with what’s in theory the perfect treatment and then in
clinical trial it caused harm to mother and baby,” she says.
Nor can studies on mice reliably predict what will happen
to a person’s brain. Melissa Parisi, chief of the Intellectual and
“Humans are much more complicated.”
Help my child
When I asked Bianchi if her real goal is to decrease the rate of
abortion for fetuses with Down syndrome, she deflected the
question. “Our goal is to hopefully improve neurocognition
and, in doing so, provide expectant couples with a message of
hope,” she says. “What people decide to do with that informa-
tion is their business.”
But if Bianchi or others do succeed with a drug therapy,
the option would present new and complicated choices for
expecting parents and for their doctors. Those who today
would be inclined to have an abortion might reconsider.
Other parents might question what it means to try to alter
cognition. “When you first discover you are having a baby
with Down syndrome, your gut reaction is ‘ This is a problem—how can we fix it?’” says Amy Julia Becker, who has
a daughter, Penny, with the condition. Becker, who lives in
Connecticut and writes frequently about Down syndrome,
says her attitude has changed: “Penny is almost 10. I don’t see
A Time Line of Down Syndrome
Life expectancy of someone with Down syndrome is 12
years. Famed pediatrician Benjamin Spock recommends
that such babies be institutionalized at birth.
Studying human cells with a microscope, Jerome Lejeune
and French colleagues discover the cause of Down
syndrome. It is an extra copy of chromosome 21.
Biomedical researchers write a letter to the Lancet
objecting to the term “mongolism.” They propose “Down’s
syndrome” or “trisomy 21” as an alternative.
First mouse model of Down syndrome is developed in
West Germany, speeding research.
Prenatal testing using amniocentesis becomes common
in the United States, leading to the first abortions for
The International Down Syndrome Federation is formed to
promote human rights for people with the syndrome.
National Institutes of Health funding for Down syndrome
reaches a low of $14 million out of a $28.5 billion budget,
or 0.0005 percent. Down syndrome remains the most
common cause of intellectual disability at birth.
U.S. company Sequenom launches the first noninvasive
blood test for Down syndrome, quickly creating a
multimillion-dollar market aimed at consumers.
At least 10 drug treatments are shown to partly correct
learning and memory deficits in Down syndrome mice,
spurring interest in clinical trials.
Physicians in Texas plan to launch the first study of a drug
for women carrying a Down syndrome pregnancy. It is the
Physician J. Langdon Down uses ethnic characteristics
to classify the intellectually handicapped residents of a
British asylum, resulting in the term “Mongolism.”