New research by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has suggested that high levels of folate intake in pregnant women could increase the risk of autism in developing fetuses.

Autism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopmental condition characterised by social impairment, abnormal communication and repetitive or unusual behaviour.

Folate, which is a B vitamin found naturally in fruits and vegetables, is prescribed for pregnant women to ensure cell growth and promote proper neurodevelopmental growth of their babies.

” What this tells us is that excessive amounts of folate can also cause harm. We must aim for optimal levels of this important nutrient.”

Folic acid is the synthetic version of folate, and is used to fortify cereals and breads in the US and in vitamin supplements.

According to the research, excessive amounts of both folate and vitamin B12 in new mothers increases the risk of their offspring developing an autism spectrum disorder by 17.6 times.

Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Wendy Klag Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities director Dr M Daniele Fallin said: “Adequate supplementation is protective: That’s still the story with folic acid.

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“We have long known that a folate deficiency in pregnant mothers is detrimental to her child’s development. But what this tells us is that excessive amounts may also cause harm. We must aim for optimal levels of this important nutrient.”

The findings are based on a study that analysed data from 1,391 mother-child pairs in the Boston Birth Cohort, a predominantly low-income minority population.

For the study, mothers at the time of their child’s birth between 1998 and 2013 were included and followed for several years.

The researchers, who checked the mother’s blood folate levels once within the first one to three days of delivery, found that one in ten of the women had an excess amount of folate (more than 59 nanomoles per litre) and 6% had an excess amount of vitamin B12 (more than 600 picomoles per litre).

According to the World Health Organization, between 13.5 and 45.3 nanomoles per litre is an adequate amount of folate for a woman in her first trimester of pregnancy.

Currently, there are not well-established thresholds for adequate vitamin B12 levels.

The scientists concluded that more research is required to determine just how much folic acid a woman should consume during pregnancy to ensure her offspring’s health.

This study is part of an ongoing prospective birth cohort study on early life determinants of autism in the Boston Birth Cohort, and is supported by the Maternal and Child Health Bureau.