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Study Finds Link Between Autism and Excess Folate during Pregnancy

The Short of It

A new study looks at the link between folate levels in pregnancy and a baby's risk of developing autism later in life.

The Lowdown

For years, pregnant women have been told taking folic acid, which is the synthetic form of the vitamin folate and is found in foods like spinach, beans, and fortified cereals and snacks, is vital for the healthy development of a growing baby's brain and nervous system. Now, new research finds there may be too much of a good thing when it comes to ingesting folate during pregnancy.

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Researchers looked at 1,391 kids born at Boston University Medical Center from 1998 to 2013. Approximately 100 kids were later diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.

When researchers found high levels of folate in a mother's blood at the time of delivery, she was twice as likely to have an autistic child. A high level of vitamin B12 also seemed to elevate one's risk—threefold. In fact, when both levels were very high, researchers found a 17-fold greater risk that a child would later develop autism.

Interestingly, most moms who participated in the study took multivitamins that contained folic acid and vitamin B12, yet only some women showed high levels in their blood. This could mean those women took too many supplements, perhaps consumed too much folate in their diets as well, or there could be a genetic reason some moms absorb more folate.

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It's important to point out that the vitamin levels were tested at birth, not during early pregnancy when a baby's brain is developing. It's also worth noting that experts have called the findings of this study into question because they were based on a small sample of families at a single hospital.

Plus, a 2013 study found the opposite relationship between folate during pregnancy and a child's risk of having autism. So it would be right to feel confused by the many studies that look at pregnancy nutrition and behaviors and their link to having an autistic child.

The Upshot

The bottom line is this study is not recommending that pregnant women change their folate intake.

"We are not suggesting anyone stop supplementation," researcher M. Daniele Fallin told Salon.

And no cause and effect relationship has been established; this study simply found a link between high levels of folate in a mother's blood at birth and a child's risk for developing autism later in life.

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But this study, which was presented at the International Meeting for Autism Research in Baltimore this week, does raise an interesting question.

"The new research question before us is to understand the optimal dose," said Fallin.

Dr. Paul Wang, senior vice president of medical research for Autism Speaks, says this study shows when pregnant women take folic acid and B12 three to five times a week, there's a protective effect against autism.

"What we've always believed to be true remains true, that supplements decrease the risk of autism. The bottom line still is that taking the recommended vitamins is overall decreasing your child's risk," he says.

So it seems the best strategy is to work with your doctor to come up with the right prenatal supplementation program for you.

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