A recent study in the Journal of American Medical Association showed a possible correlation between low intake of folic acid and children born with autism. According to this study that included 85000 children in Norway, children whose mothers consumed folic acid during early pregnancy had 39% lower risk of developing autistic disorders when compared to the children whose mothers did not take folic acid. Moreover, the same study also showed that this large risk reduction was specifically associated with folic acid and no other nutrients.
Autism is a condition that is usually seen in early childhood. It is characterized by abnormal social interaction and communications. A child also shows restrictive, repetitive and stereotyped behaviors. There are several different causes of autism that exist today. Some of them include genetic abnormalities, obstetric complications, exposure to toxic agents and prenatal, perinatal and postnatal infections. To add to this list, studies now show a link between folic acid deficiency and autism.
Considering the role of folic acid in developmental disorders, we should examine some important facts about it. Folic acid is a B vitamin that is needed by the body for several functions. It is particularly important for rapid cell division and growth that is seen during infancy and pregnancy. A lack of folic acid levels in the body leads to elevated levels of homocysteine, a non-protein amino acid. An elevated level of homocysteine is a risk factor for cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s disease, and other neurodegenerative disorders.
Foods that are high in folic acid are numerous and include green leafy vegetables such as spinach, asparagus, and turnip greens and even animal products. Folic acid is found in moderate amounts in citrus fruits such as orange, pineapple, and grapefruit. A healthy individual has about 500-20000 mcg of folate stores in the body. Humans need to absorb approximately 50-100 mcg of folate in a day to replenish the amount that is lost in the urine and bile. Although folic acid is lost daily through the body, signs, and symptoms of the deficiency are usually seen after four months.
Early research linked folic acid deficiency to malformations of spine and brain, commonly known as the neural tube disorders. Consumption of adequate amount of folic acid before conception has been shown to protect and significantly reduces the risk of these disorders. Folic acid supplements consumption also reduces the risks of congenital heart defects, cleft lips, limbs, and urinary tract abnormalities. The folic acid deficiency in also increase the risk of preterm delivery, leads to low birth weight and increase the levels of homocysteine that increases the risk of spontaneous abortion and obstetric complications such as abruption of the placenta.
Given the facts above, it would not be unbelievable to think that folic acid may have several neuroprotective effects. From a public health perspective, the role of folic acid in preventing neural disorders and developmental disorder would be immense. Regardless, more research is needed to support the current results and emphasize the recommendations of folic acid consumption during pregnancy, preferably before conception.