Folic acid found to reduce risk of autism

A study that was conducted by researchers at the University of California (UC) Davis and which was published in Environmental Health Perspectives on Friday, September 8 showed that children whose mothers had an intake of 800 or more micrograms (mcg) of folic acid – the amount that is usually found in most prenatal vitamins – had a lower risk of incurring autism spectrum disorder (ASD), even if their mothers were exposed to household or agricultural pesticides that cause such risk.

Using data from the Childhood Autism Risks from Genetics and the Environment (CHARGE) study, the researchers took into consideration the cases of 296 children between the ages of two and five who were diagnosed with ASD, and 220 children whose conditions developed atypically.

Mothers of both groups of children were questioned about their household pesticide exposure as well as their folic acid intake.

Women who did not take much folic acid and were exposed to agricultural pesticides from three months before conception to three months after conception were also found to be at higher estimated risk. (Related: High pesticide exposure in pregnant women found to cause birth defects and low birth weight.)

We found that if the mom was taking folic acid during the window around conception, the risk associated with pesticides seemed to be attenuated. Mothers should try to avoid pesticides. But if they live near agriculture, where pesticides can blow in, this might be a way to counter those effects,” said study first author and Department of Public Health Sciences assistant professor Dr. Rebecca J. Schmidt.

Folic acid intake below the median and exposure to pesticides was associated with higher risk of autism than either low intake or exposure alone. The mothers who had the highest risk were the ones who were exposed to pesticides regularly,” Schmidt said.

It would be better for women to avoid chronic pesticide exposure if they can while pregnant,” Schmidt, a MIND Institute faculty member, added.

According to Schmidt, their team is also looking into identifying the mechanisms that contribute to folic acid’s protective effects. “Folate plays a critical role in DNA methylation (a process by which genes are turned off or on), as well as in DNA repair and synthesis.

These are all really important during periods of rapid growth when there are lots of cells dividing, as in a developing fetus. Adding folic acid might be helping out in a number of these genomic functions,” she said.

According to the United States National Institutes of Health, one in 68 American children has ASD, which can range from mild to severe. A combination of environmental and genetic influences cause such a disorder, the agency added.

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