Fortification of foods with folic acid, a B vitamin, not only protects developing babies against certain birth defects but also supports healthy brain development through the teenage years, researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital in Charlestown report.
It’s been known for more than 20 years that consuming adequate folic acid before and early on in pregnancy protects the fetus against spina bifida and other neural tube defects.
These findings, however, are among the first to link folic acid during pregnancy to improved brain health in young people and to show the effect is due to specific changes in brain development.
About the study
The researchers evaluated associations between prenatal folic acid exposure, maturation of the brain’s cortex, and the risk of psychiatric disorders in youths 8 to 18 years of age born before, during, and after full implementation of folic acid fortification of grain products (white flour, white pasta, cornmeal) between 1996 and 1998. (The brain cortex is the largest part of the human brain, associated with higher brain function such as thought and action.)
Brain cortex thickness was greatest in youth born after full implementation of folic acid fortification, intermediate in those born during the rollout and lowest in those born before folic acid fortification.
After the brain reaches its full thickness, the cortex begins to thin in a selective pruning process. Delayed thinning has been associated with higher intelligence, whereas accelerated thinning has been associated with schizophrenia and autism, the researchers note.
Folic acid linked to lower risk of schizophrenia
Folic acid fortification was associated with slower thinning of the brain cortex, and this delayed thinning was associated with lower odds of developing psychotic disorders like schizophrenia.
“Despite longstanding recommendations that women of child-bearing age take folic acid to protect against neural tube defects, especially in the event of unplanned pregnancy, most women who are capable of pregnancy do not take prenatal folic acid supplements (e.g., prenatal vitamins), and less than half of the world’s population lives in countries that require folic acid fortification of grain products,” said researchers.
The findings provide additional evidence in support of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s recommendation that all women of childbearing age consume 0.4 mg (400 micrograms) of folic acid daily.
Source: JAMA Psychiatry, online July 3, 2018.
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