Folate reduces risk of severe autism, finds study

Folate could potentially play a part in things such as ADHD or schizophrenia, study says.
Folate could potentially play a part in things such as ADHD or schizophrenia, study says. 

A new study that shows a link between taking folate around the time of conception and a reduced chance of severe autism could have implications for other brain disorders, such as schizophrenia.

Professor Andrew Whitehouse, from Western Australia's Telethon Institute of Child Health Research, said a new Norwegian study into the effects of taking folic acid supplements had implications for many disorders.

"Taking folate around conception is very much known to reduce the risk of what are known as neural tube defects, so things like spina bifida," Professor Whitehouse said, adding that it had already been considered that folic acid may also reduce the risk of other neural developmental problems, such as autism.

"What this study found was that it only reduced the risk for the more severe types of autism," Professor Whitehouse told AAP.

"[But] it could potentially play a part in any disorder that is associated with neuro-development, so other things such as ADHD [attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder] or schizophrenia, for example."

"The findings do indicate that the importance of folic acid is not just in reducing neural tube defects such as spina bifida, but may very much be important for other neuro-developmental disorders."

The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, showed that children born to women who took folic acid supplements four weeks prior to conception, through to eight weeks after, appeared to be at a lower risk of autism.

The study showed the incidence of autism was 0.10 per cent in offspring of mothers who took periconceptional folic acid supplements, but was 0.21 per cent in the children of those who didn't.

More than 85,000 Norwegian children who were born between 2002 and 2008 took part in the study.

Authors of the study appeared to shy away from generalising their results to other neuro-developmental outcomes.

"Folic acid supplement use in early pregnancy might be protective for autistic disorder, these findings cannot be generalised to other neuro-developmental outcomes or other populations," they said.

Prof Whitehouse said the study showed an association between autism and folic acid taken around conception, but not a causal link.

"They haven't proved that taking folic acid causes the reduction in autism, they have just found an association," he said.

Flour sold in Australia since 2009 has been fortified with folate.

© 2013 AAP