Article on Folate Intake in Pregnancy, and Prevention of Autism

Folate Use, Not Maternal Concentrations, Linked to Fewer Autistic Traits in Offspring
August 27, 2014
By Rob Goodier

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – A new study confirms that children of women who take prenatal folic acid supplements have fewer autistic traits. But the link isn’t explained by maternal folate concentrations, at least not at 13 weeks of gestational age.

“One of the proposed mechanisms underlying such a protective effect involves the increased availability of folates to the foetus, resulting from its mother’s folic acid supplement use,” said lead author Dr. Jolien Steenweg-de Graaff of Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

“As folates play a key role in synthesis and methylation of DNA, they may influence foetal neurodevelopment even beyond closure of the neural tube,” she told Reuters Health by email. “Our study, however, does not confirm this mechanism, as we did not find an effect of maternal blood folate concentrations on the level of autistic traits in children.”

Dr. Steenweg-de Graaf and colleagues measured folate concentrations in nearly 5,600 mothers for their study, online July 31 in the European Journal of Public Health. The team also surveyed the women about their folic acid supplement use.

Later, when their children were an average of six years old, the researchers were able to follow up with 3900 mothers to ask them to assess their children’s autistic traits. The mothers scored their children according to the Social Responsiveness Scale and a subscale of the Child Behavior Checklist.

They found that women who started using folic acid supplements before conception, within the first 10 weeks of pregnancy or after the first 10 weeks all had children with lower scores on the autistic traits scales than those who did not report taking the supplements.

Maternal plasma folate concentrations in early pregnancy (median, 13.2 weeks of gestation) were not significantly associated with autism scores, however.

One explanation for the apparent discrepancy may be that mothers who take supplements are more likely to have all-around healthier lifestyles, the researchers say.

That is also how Dr. Alberto Ascherio, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who was not involved in the research, interpreted the findings.

“This is a well-conducted investigation that supports the concept that mothers with healthy diet/behavior before pregnancy or in very early pregnancy are less likely to have a child with autism, but this association does not appear to be explained by higher folate levels at 13 weeks,” Dr. Ascherio told Reuters Health by email.

“As commented by the authors, either folate levels are only important at earlier stages, or still unknown factors other than folate explain this association,” he added.


Eur J Public Health 2014.
Reuters Health Information © 2014