Folic Acid May Lower Risk of Autism in Newborns: Another Reason to Take Vitamins

First Posted: Feb 13, 2013 08:45 AM EST

Folic acid may not just be useful for preventing birth defects. Now, it may be a good way to also lower the risk of autism, according to researchers.

Folic acid is a supplement that has habitually been added to grain and cereal in the U.S. since 1998 when studies showed that the B vitamin could actually lower the risk of neural tube defect in newborns. This new study, published in the journal JAMA, provides further evidence of the benefits of folic acid; it could lower the risk of autism by up to 40 percent.

The researchers examined data from around 85,000 Norwegian children born between 2002 and 2008. They then tracked the use of folic acid supplements in expectant moms beginning about four weeks before they became pregnant. Since there are no requirements to fortify food in Norway with folic acid, the researchers were able to better see the difference between those that used folic acid and those that didn't.

The researchers found that women who took folic acid pills were less likely to have children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders than mothers who didn't take the supplements. A total of 270 children between the ages of three and 10 were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, 114 were diagnosed with autistic disorder, 56 with Asperger syndrome and 100 with pervasive developmental disorder.

Although folic acid has been shown to be effective in preventing birth defects, the researchers admit that there may be other reasons for their findings. They were not able to adjust for other factors that may have accounted for the lower risk of autism among mothers taking folic acid. For example, the mothers who did take the supplements were more likely to come from a higher socioeconomic background and take advantage of prenatal programs.

Even so, this study shows that by merely taking folic acid during their pregnancy, expectant mothers can potentially lower the risk of autism in their newborns. Ian Lipkin, one of the researchers and director of the Center form Infection & Immunity at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, said in an interview with Time, "Given that this is such a simple thing to do, it is inexpensive, nontoxic, it is an important thing to tell anyone considering getting pregnant to take folate."

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