A Mental Health Benefit of Folic Acid in Pregnancy

Prenatal exposure to folic acid may reduce later risk of mental illness

(RxWiki News) Eating foods enriched with folic acid during pregnancy may be more beneficial than once thought.

A new study found a link between exposure to folic acid during pregnancy and changes in children's brain development that may be linked to a lower risk for certain mental illnesses later in life.

In 1996, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requested that folic acid, a vitamin, be added to grains like bread, cereal and pasta to reduce the risk of birth defects. Now, it seems that this folic acid fortification may have mental health benefits for children, too.

To conduct this new study, researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital looked at brain images of 292 school-aged children divided into three groups based on the year they were born (those born before, during and after the year folic acid was added to foods). They assessed how much folic acid these children were possibly exposed to in the womb.

Compared to children who were born earlier, children born to mothers who were pregnant during and after the FDA's folic acid fortification request had increases in brain tissue thickness and a delay in brain thinning in certain parts of the brain.

These kinds of changes in later brain development may be tied to a lower risk of psychosis, which is the mental state of being out of touch with reality, the study authors noted.

This study has some limitations, including the fact that the authors did not have a way to know the exact folic acid intake or folate levels of the mothers included in the research.

If you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, speak with your health care provider about how to get enough folic acid.

This study was published in JAMA Psychiatry. It was funded by grants from MQ: Transforming Mental Health and the National Institutes of Health. One study author received funding from Pamlab, a medical food company.