Beginning in the 1990s, the U.S. Public Health Service and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began recommending that all women of childbearing age take 400 micrograms of folic acid each day, which prevents neural tube defects. These conditions include anencephaly and spina bifida, which are defects of the brain and spinal cord. In 1998, folic acid was added to the grain supply, and since this addition, the U.S. has noted a 26% decrease in neural tube defects.
According to new research, folic acid taken before and during pregnancy could possibly lower the risk for autism. Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate, which is a B vitamin that plays a role in the production of new cells during pregnancy. Folic acid is necessary for production of RNA and DNA, to metabolize homocysteine, and to make healthy red blood cells.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that affects the child’s ability to communicate and interact with other children and adults. ASD is a spectrum condition that is defined by a set of behaviors that affects people differently. A single cause for autism has not been identified, but increased awareness about the disorder have brought awareness to the problem. This condition is associated with narrow, intense interests, problems with reasoning and planning, poor motor skills, and sensory sensitivities.
In 2015, the CDC reported that the prevalence rate of autism in the U.S. rose to 1 in every 68 births, which is nearly twice the 2004 rate of 1 in 125. Of these 68 children, 54 of those affected are boys. The cost for caring for a child with ASD is around $2.4 million, including insurance, non-covered expenses, education, housing, and transportation.
The Research Studies
In a recent study conducted at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, Dr. Suren and associates investigated the link between folic acid and conception as well as the reduction in the risk of autism in offspring. The study involved more than 85,000 children born between 2002 and 2008. The results showed that 0.32% of the children (270 total) were diagnosed with autism at some point, with 114 having autistic disorder, 56 having Asperger’s syndrome, and 100 having non-specified autistic disorder. The study showed a lower rate of autism in children whose mothers took folic acid supplementation than those who did not take folic acid.
Similar results have been seen in other studies. A study from the U.C. Davis MIND Institute found that that folic acid supplements taken during the first month of pregnancy reduced the risk of autism in the children. The findings did not establish a cause-effect relationship between folic acid and autism, but they show a need for replicating these studies to investigate the biological mechanisms and genetic factors that could show an association.
In a 2011 California-based study, researchers found that mothers of children with autism did not take prenatal vitamins during the first three months of pregnancy. This suggested that periconceptional use of prenatal vitamins may reduce the risk for autism. Each prenatal vitamin contains 400-800 micrograms of folic acid.
However, folic acid is no magic pill. Autism affects many children born in the United States, so many parents are concerned about the implications of this disease. These studies show that folic acid supplementation is a low-risk option for people seeking to lower their child’s risk for developing this disease. Taking folic acid during the earliest stages of pregnancy may lower the child’s odds of autism by around 40%, according to research. But lowering the odds does not eliminate the chances of conceiving a child with autism altogether.