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What causes autism is still an unanswered question, but a study out of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD, may have just brought the world a whole lot closer to lowering risk. The groundbreaking finding: Women with excessive levels of vitamin B12 and folate around the time they gave birth were 17 times more likely than those with normal levels to have children on the autism spectrum. The kids of women with elevated levels of just folate were twice as likely to develop autism spectrum disorders (ASD), according to ResearchGate.net.
Folic acid, the man-made form of folate, and vitamin B12 are key ingredients in the prenatal vitamins doctors recommend pregnant women take daily. Folic acid prevents neural tube defects, including debilitating conditions like spina bifida and anencephaly, according to Mayo Clinic and the U.S. National Institutes of Health's National Library of Medicine. But in 1998, the FDA began enriching foods like breads, cereals, and pastas with folic acid because of all the health benefits. That roughly coincides with the increased number of diagnoses of ASD, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Researchers on the study, which looked at nearly 1,400 sets of moms and kids, speculate the extra intake of folic acid from post-1998 diets coupled with the amount in pill supplements may lead to those excessive levels, but more research needs to be done; some women may naturally have higher levels. What's more complicated is that too little folic acid could up a child's risk for autism, Daniele Fallin, PhD, the Johns Hopkins study author told ResearchGate.
Dr. Fallin recommends concerned women speak with their doctors and emphasizes that prenatal vitamins are still an important part of healthcare for pregnant women. "These have been successful public health initiatives that should be continued without a doubt. Our work highlights that there is a subset of women with extremely high levels of these essential B vitamins, and that this may be harmful," she said.