Paracetamol (Acetaminophen) and the Developing Brain

Int J Mol Sci. 2021 Oct 15;22(20):11156. doi: 10.3390/ijms222011156.


Paracetamol is commonly used to treat fever and pain in pregnant women, but there are growing concerns that this may cause attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder in the offspring. A growing number of epidemiological studies suggests that relative risks for these disorders increase by an average of about 25% following intrauterine paracetamol exposure. The data analyzed point to a dose-effect relationship but cannot fully account for unmeasured confounders, notably indication and genetic transmission. Only few experimental investigations have addressed this issue. Altered behavior has been demonstrated in offspring of paracetamol-gavaged pregnant rats, and paracetamol given at or prior to day 10 of life to newborn mice resulted in altered locomotor activity in response to a novel home environment in adulthood and blunted the analgesic effect of paracetamol given to adult animals. The molecular mechanisms that might mediate these effects are unknown. Paracetamol has diverse pharmacologic actions. It reduces prostaglandin formation via competitive inhibition of the peroxidase moiety of prostaglandin H2 synthase, while its metabolite N-arachidonoyl-phenolamine activates transient vanilloid-subtype 1 receptors and interferes with cannabinoid receptor signaling. The metabolite N-acetyl-p-benzo-quinone-imine, which is pivotal for liver damage after overdosing, exerts oxidative stress and depletes glutathione in the brain already at dosages below the hepatic toxicity threshold. Given the widespread use of paracetamol during pregnancy and the lack of safe alternatives, its impact on the developing brain deserves further investigation.

Keywords: acetaminophen; attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; autism spectrum disorder; paracetamol.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acetaminophen* / adverse effects
  • Acetaminophen* / pharmacology
  • Adult
  • Animals
  • Animals, Newborn
  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / chemically induced
  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / etiology
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / chemically induced
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / etiology
  • Brain* / drug effects
  • Brain* / embryology
  • Brain* / growth & development
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Mice
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / chemically induced
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / physiopathology
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / psychology
  • Rats


  • Acetaminophen