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Why Folic Acid Could Be Good for Autism

Folic acid could be good for autism

The increasing prevalence of autism has triggered growing concern about ways to prevent and treat this neurodevelopmental disorder. Now a new study conducted at the University of California Davis MIND Institute reports that folic acid could be good for autism when taken by women during the first month of pregnancy.

What is special about folic acid?

It's been well established for decades that folic acid, which is the synthetic form of vitamin B9, or folate, significantly reduces the risk of neural tube birth defects when taken before and during pregnancy. More recently, studies have shown that supplementation with folic acid may improve intellectual and motor skills of children while low intake may contribute to emotional problems.

In the new study, researchers evaluated data from about 835 mothers of 2- to 5-year-old children who had autism, developmental delay, or normal development and who had participated in the Childhood Autism Risk from Genetics and the Environment (CHARGE) study.

Researchers assessed each mother's average daily intake of folic acid both in the form of supplements and in food for the three months before they became pregnant and during pregnancy. An evaluation of the data showed the following:

  • Women who had normally developing children had higher than average intake of folic acid and were more likely to have met the recommended intake of the nutrient during their first month of pregnancy than were women who had children with autism spectrum disorder
  • As the intake of folic acid increased, the risk for autism decreased
  • Women who had children with developmental delay tended to have consumed less folic acid during the first trimester when compared with women whose children had normal development
  • Mothers of children who developed normally reported consuming an average of 779 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid per day, with 69% meeting the daily guidelines of 600 mcg
  • Mothers of children with autism said they consumed an average of 655 micrograms per day of folic acid, and 54% consumed 600 mcg or more daily

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The authors concluded their findings support earlier research showing that women who take prenatal vitamins around the time they conceive have a reduced risk of giving birth to a child with autism. The new finding suggests women who are attempting to become pregnant, along with those who are already pregnant, should consider taking folic acid supplements.

Earlier research from the University of California Davis MIND Institute showed that women who did not take prenatal vitamins early during pregnancy were twice as likely to have a child with autism than women who did take the nutrients. This information, along with the current study, indicate that women should take prenatal vitamins, including folic acid, before and during pregnancy.

Results of this study provide important information for women who are considering pregnancy or who have just become pregnant. Lead study author Rebecca J. Schmidt, assistant professor of public health sciences at the UC Davis School of Medicine explained that the finding "supports recommendations that women with any chance of becoming pregnant should consider consuming folic acid at levels of 600 micrograms or greater per day," which may help reduce the chances of developing autism.

Schmidt RJ et al. Maternal periconceptional folic acid intake and risk of autism spectrum disorders and developmental delay in the CHARGE (CHildhood Autism Risks from Genetics and Environment) case-control study. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2012; DOI:10.3945/ajcn.110.004416
Schmidt RJ et al. Prenatal vitamins, one-carbon metabolism gene variants, and risk for autism. Epidemiology 2011 Jul; 22(4): 476-85
Steenweg-de GJ et al. Maternal folate status in early pregnancy and child emotional and behavioral problems: the Generation R Study. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2012 Jun; 95(6): 1413-21

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