Children whose mothers took folic acid supplements early in their pregnancies were less likely to develop autism, even when the pregnant moms were exposed to pesticides linked to the neurodevelopmental disorder, a new study from the University of California, Davis found.
According to the findings, moms who were exposed to household or agricultural pesticides just before and during their pregnancies but who took high-dose folic acid cut in half the risk of their children developing autism when compared to women who received low doses of the vitamin.
“If there’s a chance you might get pregnant, . . . take your folic acid and try to avoid unnecessary pesticides,” the lead researcher said.
The research confirmed previous studies connecting maternal pesticide exposure to autism spectrum disorder (ASD), but it breaks new ground by finding that children prenatally exposed to pesticides were less likely to be diagnosed with autism if their mothers took a high dose of folic acid.
Good sources of folic acid, or vitamin B-9, include spinach, broccoli, asparagus, lentils, black beans and fortified cereal.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force and other health groups already urge women with any chance of becoming pregnant to take daily folic acid supplements because a deficiency has long been linked to brain and spinal cord birth defects.
About autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
ASD is a developmental disability marked by social, communication and behavioral challenges. An estimated one of every 68 children in the U.S. was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder in 2012, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Since the 1990s, rates of autism have spiked across the nation. Boys are 4.5 times more likely to be diagnosed with ASD than girls.
The new findings, in addition to underscoring the importance of folic acid, highlight the role environmental pollutants appear to play in the development of autism.
About the study
Study participants included 296 children diagnosed with autism and 220 who developed typically. All were between 2 and 5 years old and born in California from 2000 until 2007.
Researchers interviewed the children’s mothers about their folic acid intake as well as their exposure during pregnancy to household pesticides, including pet flea and tick products, professional pest control or extermination, and indoor and outdoor sprays and chemicals intended to kill insects. Investigators also linked data from state pesticide-use reports with mothers’ addresses to determine exposure to agricultural sprays.
Women with below-average folic acid intake and exposure to any indoor pesticides had 2.5 times the risk of having a child with autism compared to unexposed mothers who took at least 800 micrograms of folic acid, the amount in prenatal vitamins.
Mothers who were exposed regularly to pesticides for three months before and after conception were at the highest risk of having children who developed ASD.
While folic acid reduced the risk of a child developing autism, it did not eliminate it.
The study relied on mothers’ memories about their household pesticide exposure, a limitation of the research. But researchers were able to draw similar conclusions from California pesticide-use data as they did from self-reported pesticide usage, strengthening the findings.
The study shows promise for nutritional supplements mitigating the damage from prenatal pollutants. Taking folic acid may be a way to attenuate the effects of environmental pollutants and contaminants that we don’t have a lot of control over.
Source: Environmental Health Perspectives, online September 12, 2017.
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