Recently, two studies gave women one more reason to take their prenatal vitamins. Folic acid, that B vitamin naturally found in leafy green vegetables like spinach, some fruits, dried beans, peas and nuts and that is found as folate in enriched breads and cereals, might do more for developing babies than just helping prevent neural defects like spina bifida.
It might help prevent autism, which affects an estimated 1 in 88 children in the United States.
Last summer, researchers at University of California-Davis published the results from studying the folic acid intake of 835 Northern California mothers of children between ages 2 and 5. The study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that women who had normally developing children consumed a daily average of 779 micrograms of folic acid while they were pregnant and three months before they were pregnant. The women with children with autism consumed an average of 655 micrograms of folic acid.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention already recommends that all women ages 15 to 45 years take a daily multivitamin with at least 400 micrograms of folic acid, even if they aren't planning on getting pregnant, because about half of all pregnancies are unplanned.
In February, scientists published a study of 85,176 children in Norway that looked at whether their mothers used folic acid supplements from four weeks before they were conceived to eight weeks into the pregnancy. In those children whose mother took the supplements, 0.10 percent were on the autism spectrum, compared with 0.21 percent whose mothers did not take the supplements.
For folic acid researcher Richard Finnell, a University of Texas professor of nutritional science, chemistry and biochemistry and the director of genomic research at Dell Children's Medical Center, the two studies were a relief. There had been a fear that the fortification of foods with folate, which became mandatory in the U.S. in 1998, might be causing the rise in the number of children with autism.
These two studies indicate that the opposite might be true. Still, Finnell cautions that more studies need to be done. Norway, for example, does not have near the rates of autism as we do, and the California study is a small population.
Freedom Perkins, a pediatric neurologist at Dell Children's Medical Center with an expertise in autism and epilepsy, agrees that the Norway study needs to be replicated in other countries, and he wonders whether there also could be a genetic or sociological factor that could be linked to some of the differences.
One of the things that could be at play here, Perkins and Finnell say, is that some women produce antibodies to folic acid and are genetically less able to absorb the vitamin and pass the nutrients onto their babies. That might be a factor in autism. It could be that women who have these antibodies need to take more folic acid than the currently recommended dose.
Finnell is working with the Scotland Autism Treatment Trust to see if there is a relationship between these folic acid antibodies and autism as well as whether the casein in cow's milk might also affect the amount of folic acid absorbed.
While folic acid and autism is exciting research, Perkins cautions that mothers who have children with autism should not be beating themselves up because of these studies. "The findings are real, but they are not proof," he says. There still are a number of things that could be at work here, he says.
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