Prenatal vitamins may help to lower the risk of autism in children, even for high-risk families, a new study has revealed.
In prior studies, the use of prenatal vitamins, specifically folate (which is taken as a dietary supplement known as folic acid), has been shown to significantly lower the risk of developing autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
A new research claims that the benefits of prenatal vitamins also extend to high-risk families as well.
Families that have a child with autism are at high risk of having another child with ASD.
These younger siblings are up to 14 times more likely to have ASD when compared with the general population because of ASD’s genetic heritability.
According to the new study, use of prenatal vitamins cut the risk of developing ASD in younger siblings of children with ASD by half.
“Evidence is building for an important role of gestational exposures, including nutrition, in relation to autism. Research from imaging and other studies of the brain show that processes affected in autism occur during pregnancy. Studies have repeatedly shown that taking folic acid supplements were associated with protection from autism in the general population,” Rebecca J. Schmidt, PhD, assistant professor in the department of public health sciences and the MIND Institute, UC Davis School of Medicine, and first author of the study has said.
“This is a small study that needs to be replicated in a larger sample before true risk reduction calculations and public health policy decisions can be made,” Dr. Kristin Sohl, vice chair of the department of pediatrics at University of Missouri Health Care, and part of Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network, has said.
Folic acid supplementation, while generally recommended, has not been without criticism.
Research presented by researchers from Johns Hopkins University caused a frenzy in 2016. They found that moms with extremely high levels of folic acid and vitamin B-12 in their blood were linked to an increased autism risk of nearly 18 percent.
Could prenatal vitamins — the very thing mothers were taking to lower the risk of ASD in their children — actually have a role in causing it?
Only in extreme cases.
“There are many possibilities. Folate and other vitamins are important for many processes that are critical during development and have been implicated in autism. This includes things like epigenetics — specifically DNA methylation which is dynamic near the critical time implicated in our study and potentially important for fetal programming, DNA synthesis and repair, mitochondrial functioning, oxidative stress, inflammation,” said Schmidt.
Folate is known to help prevent neural tube defects, including spina bifida and anencephaly. It also plays a prominent role in fetal and brain development.
“Because many pregnancies are unplanned and because neural tube defects can develop in the first 28 days of fetal development, all women of child-bearing age are recommended to take increased folic acid,” said Sohl.