Folic acid can cut autism risk, new study shows

New study results show that taking folic acid early in pregnancy could cut autism rates up to 40%. Photo: NatureMade

SILVER SPRING, Md, March 1, 2013 — In March of 2012, the Centers for Disease Control announced that the rate in autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in the United States had risen to 1 in 88 children. The numbers were startling because they marked a 78% increase since the CDC first reported on the incidence of ASD in 2007.

While some of the increase can be attributed to the way in which affected children are identified, there are still other unidentified factors that are contributing to the rise. With the concern about the rising rate of diagnosis in the United States, research to cure and treat ASD abounds.

There is even an Interagency Autism Coordination Committee that reviews ongoing research in an effort to try to direct new research efforts for ASD. But a study published in Journal of the American Medical Association on February 13, 2013 looked at ways to cut the risk of having a baby with autism with prenatal efforts, and the results are so stunning that it may just help offer a reduction to future autism numbers.

Pregnant women have long been counseled to take folic acid, vitamin B9, to prevent birth defects like spina bifida, anencephaly and some heart defects. However, the new study, conducted in Norway, found that this same vitamin may also play a vital role in reducing the risk of developing autism.

The study followed over 85,000 children born between 2002-2008. The final follow-up with the children was in March of 2012. The rate of children born with autism was 40% lower in mothers who took folic acid in pregnancy. The researchers identified the four weeks before conception to eight weeks after conception as the key time that had the biggest impact, although continued and later use of the vitamin is still advised.

Folic acid taken the four weeks before conception through the first eight weeks of pregnancy has been shown to have the greatest effect.

While there had also been speculation about the benefits of fish oil supplements during pregnancy, there was no benefit in regards to reducing the instance of ASD in those women who took fish oil.

So why folic acid? What does it do? It is a B vitamin responsive for creating and repairing DNA and appears to play a key role in the early days of pregnancy before most women even know they are pregnant. That is why doctors advise women who are planning to become pregnant to begin taking folic acid three months before they plan to conceive.

If you do not want to take folic acid in vitamin form, you can get it from lentils, black beans, peanuts, spinach, broccoli, and orange juice, among other foods. In the United States rice, cereals and most grains are fortified with folic acid. However, most people still do not get enough folic acid through diet alone.  The recommended dose is 400mcg daily.

In the U.S. grains are fortified with folic acid. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

However, it is important to note that taking folic acid does not guarantee that a child will not have autism. Doctors have determined about 15% of cases of ASD are genetic, but other factors include prenatal exposure to certain medications and air pollution, premature birth, low birth weight, and certain maternal infections during pregnancy.

While the study results do not give us a silver bullet, they do point to a simple solution that may lead to a major reduction in the development of ASD. It also gives scientists more questions. Is it possible that the rise in ASD is linked to the exceedingly poor changes in the American diet over the decades? Does the rise in obesity have any link to the rise in ASD. What other nutritional preventatives have we lost?

For the time being, we do not have those answers, but the Norwegian study does provide us with some help.

Follow Brighid on Twitter a @BrighidMoret and receive updates when new columns post on Facebook or Google+.. Read more about first time parenting issues in Parenting the First Time Through at The Communities at The Washington Times.

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Brighid Moret

Brighid is a freelance writer and first time mother.  She holds an MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University.  Find her on Facebook @Brighid Moret


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