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Is There a Connection between Folic Acid and Autism?

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  • Written By: Jillian O Keeffe
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 03 September 2016
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Autism, or rather autism spectrum disorders, are a collection of behavioral abnormalities that include such problems as reduction in normal social interaction and repetitive movements. Various theories have been suggested as potential causes. Folic acid is an artificial form of a naturally occurring vitamin called folate, which humans get from food, and its supplementation in food and for pregnant women is one avenue of research. As of 2011, scientists have not found conclusive evidence that problems with folic acid intake or use are integral to autism spectrum disorders.

Folic acid, or folate, is necessary for the body to break down carbohydrates into a molecule called glucose, which is the form in which energy moves around the body. The nutrient also plays an essential role in the nervous system. Women who are deficient in folic acid during pregnancy can have babies who are born with developmental problems of the spine called neural tube defects. These conditions include spina bifida, and are preventable through a diet with enough folate, or through supplements of folic acid.

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One hypothesis for the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders is that the kid's behavioral problems are due to too much folic acid, rather than too little, during pregnancy. No significant evidence, as of 2011, is available to back up this theory, however. As folate does play a role in the nervous system, which includes the brain, however, folic acid and autism research is ongoing into this potential avenue of explanation for autism.

One study by the Mayo Clinic in the U.S. in 2011 on supplementation of folic acid and autism found only a weak correlation between autism spectrum disorders and mothers or kids who took folic acid supplements. The study authors state that as folic acid is known to benefit unborn children's spinal development, supplements that contain too much folic acid may actually cause damage to the nervous system. As of 2011, this is still a hypothesis, and the scientific evidence does not point definitively to a relationship between folic acid and autism.

In addition, research is being performed exploring the theory that kids with autism have problems metabolizing or using folic acid. A review of folic acid and autism studies in 2010 by the Sansom Institute in Australia, however, did not point to any factual basis for this idea. The field of study is relatively new, and more research may give more information. Mothers-to-be should, therefore, balance the proven risk between folic acid deficiency and neural tube defects against the hypothetical link between folic acid and autism, and seek advice from a doctor in this regard.

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