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Can taking folic acid lower the risk of autism? New studies suggest it may help

Folic acid, a form of vitamin B, may reduce the risk of autism and ease some of its features, according to a series of unrelated studies published in recent months.

» RELATED: Atlanta resources for those on the autism spectrum

Although none of these studies were connected, they all found significant correlations.

One of the recent studies, a small 12-week clinical trial with 48 children divided in treatment and placebo groups, suggested that autism patients who took folinic acid (a form of folic acid) had an easier time with language and overall communication. The findings were published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

"It isn't enough to say that kids with (autism) should be taking folinic acid, necessarily, but it is enough to motivate a larger study," Dr. Jeremy Veenstra-VanderWeele, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University who was not involved in the trial, told The Washington Post.

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"These studies are particularly of interest because they suggest that people could potentially modify their risk of having a child with autism, even in the face of certain adverse exposures or conditions," Dr. Kristen Lyall, an assistant professor in the Modifiable Risk Factors Program at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute in Philadelphia, who was not involved in any of the studies, told Spectrum News.

Three other studies revealed that prenatal folic acid supplements may curb autism risks connected to in utero exposure to harmful chemicals or epilepsy drugs. Another group of researchers also found that individuals with autism and their immediate family members have a greater likelihood than the general population to have immune molecules that may block the passage of folic acid to the brain.

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Israeli researchers studying prenatal supplements and autism discovered that women who took folic acid, multivitamins or both supplements before pregnancy were 61 percent less likely to have a child with autism. If the women continued to take the supplements during pregnancy, they noticed the risk decrease even further, making it 73 percent less likely that their child would develop autism.

"The results reinforce existing evidence that maternal use of prenatal vitamins and folic acid are associated with a reduced risk of autism in offspring," the leader of the study, Dr. Stephen Levine of the University of Haifa's community mental health department told The Jerusalem Post.

"Our results suggest that factors before pregnancy may be a target for further scrutiny to reduce the likelihood of autism," he added.

» RELATED: Girls with autism more likely to have younger siblings with autism 

Autism spectrum disorder affects a child's social interaction skills, communication and behavior. One in 160 children globally has the condition, according to the World Health Organization.

While many individuals with autism can live independent lives, others have severe disabilities that require life-long support.

Medical professionals offer behavioral treatments for children with the disease, as well as skills training programs for their parents. These methods can reduce communication difficulties and improve social behavior, bringing a positive overall impact on well-being and quality of life for those with autism.

While the new evidence suggests that taking folic acid before and during pregnancy is a good idea for women, and that individuals with autism may see benefits from taking the supplement, doctors caution that it's too soon to make concrete conclusions.

» RELATED: 5 things to know about Georgia’s autism law 

"There's some data that too much folate might be a problem," Kimford Meador, a professor of neurology at Stanford University, who was not involved in any of the studies, said. She said individuals could try taking folic acid, but not more than the recommended dose.

It's also unclear why and how folic acid may help reduce the risk of autism. Scientists aim to dig deeper to answer those questions.

"If folate does make the effects of those things smaller on the brain, I think an interesting question to try to answer is 'What exactly is folate doing?'" Dr. Heather Volk, an assistant professor of mental health at Johns Hopkins University, who co-led a recent study on folic acid and autism, said.

Here’s a list of the five studies examined in this article:

“Association of Folic Acid Supplementation During Pregnancy With the Risk of Autistic Traits in Children Exposed to Antiepileptic Drugs In Utero” published in JAMA Neurology.

“Combined Prenatal Pesticide Exposure and Folic Acid Intake in Relation to Autism Spectrum Disorder” published in Environmental Health Perspectives.

“Joint effects of prenatal air pollutant exposure and maternal folic acid supplementation on risk of autism spectrum disorder” published in Autism Research.

“Folate receptor autoantibodies are prevalent in children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, their normal siblings and parents” published in Autism Research.

“Folinic acid improves verbal communication in children with autism and language impairment: a randomized double-blind placebo-controlled trial” published in Molecular Psychiatry.

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