Autism and Folic Acid: The Plot Thickens

Folic acid might reduce the risk of autism?

According to a study of 85,176 children born in Norway just published in the Journal of the American Medical Assocation, mothers who reported taking a folic acid supplement in the weeks surrounding conception were 39% less likely to have a child later diagnosed with autism. Only 0.1% of children whose moms popped folic acid pills had autism compared to 0.2% of the those whose mothers didn't. The link between an autism diagnosis and folic acid held up even after controlling for factors like maternal age and economic status. 


The link between folic acid and the milder forms of autism (Asperger's and Pervasive Developmental Disorder - Not Other Specified) did not remain significant and the authors argue it might be because they lacked enough subjects (i.e. statistical power). 

The study jibes with previous research suggesting folic acid reduces the risk of autism including a study of preschoolers in California.

Norway has a much lower rate of autism than the U.S. This study found .32% of children had an ASD diagnosis or compared to 1.14% of U.S. children. So for every 1,000 kids born in the respective countries, 3.2 receive an autism diagnosis in Norway compared to 11.4 in the U.S.

Suprise, surprise.  We have another surprised researcher:
"We were a bit surprised about how large the reduction in risk was and how it was specifically related to folic acid and not to other supplements," Pål Surén, MD, from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health in Oslo, told Medscape Medical News. More Evidence Prenatal Folic Acid May Lower Autism Risk, Medscape.
Add him to the list. I'm keeping count this year as per my request for Santa.  Not that I'm on counting a senior citizen who flies around the world in a magical sled to fix the media.

The study: JAMA. 2013;309(6):570-577. doi:10.1001/jama.2012.155925


Awesome Mom said...

I find this interesting because folic acid is already so heavily pushed for women of child bearing age because of it's connection to neural tube defects. I think pretty much anyone that gets any prenatal care is getting it yet autism seems to happen more in older highly intelligent families which are also the most likely to get prenatal care and take folic acid.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Good catch! In an attempt at brevity I left that out - but yes, American women have not only been told of the value of folic acid for a while now but it's been in cereal and breads for decades. So yes experts have noted the increasing rates of autism in the face of rising consumption of folic acid. I suppose this is why some theorized the reverse relationship - folic acid might increase autism.