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Folic Acid Early in Pregnancy May Benefit Mental Health in Newborns
By Greg Arnold, DC, CSCS, June 21, 2012, abstracted from “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” printed online May 30, 2012 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
Folic acid is extremely beneficial during the early stages of pregnancy by helping prevent neural tube defects like spina bifida. Taking folic acid around the time of conception (periconceptional) helped prevent 50–70% of neural tube defects in the 1990’s (2). This led to increased folic acid supplement recommendations before and during pregnancy (3) as well as mandates for U.S. manufacturers to fortify grain products with 140 micrograms of folic acid per 100 grams of grain starting in 1998 (3).
Now a new study (4) suggests that periconceptonal folic acid intake may benefit newborn health regarding autism. 
In the study, researchers analyzed 837 families from the CHARGE Study (Childhood Autism Risks from Genetics and Environment Study (5)). Of the total number of families, 429 families had at least one child with Autism Spectrum Disorder, 130 families had at least one child with Developmental Disorder and 278 families had no children with either Autism or Developmental Disorder (control group). Each mother provided information on their average daily folic acid (dose, brands) as well as intake frequency of vitamins, supplements, and breakfast cereals reported through structured telephone interview (6) as well as blood samples throughout their participation in the study.
The researchers found that mothers in the control group (no autism or developmental disorders) had 16% higher folic acid intake than mothers with autistic children (779 vs. 655 micrograms/day, p < 0.01) and 8% higher intake than mothers in the developmental disability families (779 vs. 716.5 micrograms/day p < 0.01). While the increased risks for Development Disorder “were not observed after adjustment for other nutrients”, the increased risk for the autistic newborns was only significant in mothers who had a variation of a gene called MTHFR 677 (7), causing them to have problems with breaking down folic acid to be used during the baby’s development during the first few months.
They also found a cutoff for folic acid intake that significantly reduced risks for autism or developmental disorders. Specifically, mothers getting at least 600 micrograms per day of folic acid had a 38% reduced risk of autism or developmental disorders in their children compared to those getting less than 600 micrograms per day (p = 0.02).
For the researchers, “Periconceptional folic acid may reduce [autism] risk in those with inefficient folate metabolism.”
Greg Arnold is a Chiropractic Physician practicing in Hauppauge, NY.  You can contact Dr. Arnold directly by emailing him at PitchingDoc@msn.com or visiting his web site at www.PitchingDoc.com
1.       Greenblatt JM, Huffman LC, Reiss AL. Folic acid in neurodevelopment and child psychiatry. Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry 1994; 18:647–60
2.       Medical Research Council Vitamin Study Research Group. Prevention of neural tube defects: results of the Medical Research Council Vitamin Study. Lancet 1991;338:131–7.
3.       Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Recommendations for the use of folic acid to reduce the number of cases of spina bifida and other neural tube defects. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 1992;41(RR-14): 1–7.
4.       Schmidt RJ. 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. Am J Clin Nutr doi: 10.3945/ajcn.110.004416.
5.       Hertz-Picciotto I, Croen LA, Hansen R, Jones CR, van de Water J, Pessah IN. The CHARGE study: an epidemiologic investigation of genetic and environmental factors contributing to autism. Environ Health Perspect 2006;114:1119–25.
6.       Schmidt RJ, Hansen RL, Hartiala J, Allayee H, Schmidt LC, Tancredi DJ, Tassone F, Hertz-Picciotto I. Prenatal vitamins, functional onecarbon metabolism gene variants, and risk for autism in the CHARGE Study. 2011
7.       MTHFR gene information can be accessed at the Genetics Home Reference section of the National Institutes of Health website