Preliminary Research Suggests Folic Acid May Be Linked to Autism

By Giuliana Manca
Giuliana Manca
Giuliana Manca
May 12, 2016 Updated: May 25, 2016

Folate, often called folic acid, is crucial for fetal development, but new findings indicate that too much may be detrimental as well. 

Conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, the study has found that the children of new mothers with too much folate and vitamin B12 in their blood streams post-birth had much higher chances of developing an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

A May 11 press release noted that the results indicated that more than four times the “adequate” amount (between 13.5 and 45.3 nanomoles per liter) of folate doubled the child’s risk. Very high levels of vitamin B12 tripled the risk. 

If the mother had extremely high levels of both, the child’s risk of being diagnosed with an ASD increases 17.6 times.

ASD is a developmental condition characterized by social impairment, abnormal communication, and repetitive or unusual behavior.

Usually recognizable in the first two years of life, ASD affects one in 68 children in the United States. Boys are five times more likely than girls to have it.

While these new findings may be alarming, folate, or its synthetic version, folic acid, is still essential to a fetus’s neurodevelopment. In the early stages of pregnancy, folate promotes correct neurological cell growth.

Folic acid deficiencies have been shown to cause neural tube birth defects, such as spina bifida and anencephaly.

Lead author Ramkripa Raghavan said the “research suggests that this could be the case of too much of a good thing.”

“We tell women to be sure to get folate early in pregnancy,” continued Raghavan. “What we need to figure out now is whether there should be additional recommendations about just what an optimal dose is throughout pregnancy.”

“Adequate supplementation is protective: That’s still the story with folic acid,” said one of the study’s senior authors, Dr. M. Daniele Fallin, director of the Bloomberg School’s Wendy Klag Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities. 

Researchers analyzed data from 1,391 mother-child pairs from the Boston Birth Cohort between 1998-2013. The findings will be presented May 13 at the 2016 International Meeting for Autism Research in Baltimore, Massachusetts.  

The CDC recommends all women of childbearing age—aged 15 and 45— of consume 0.4 mg (400 micrograms) of folic acid daily. 

“We have long known that a folate deficiency in pregnant mothers is detrimental to her child’s development,” said Fallin, “but what this tells us is that excessive amounts may also cause harm.”

“We must aim for optimal levels of this important nutrient,” noted Fallin. 

Giuliana Manca
Giuliana Manca