Posted on Mon, 8 Aug 16
Folate is important for preventing neural tube defects, serious malformation of the spine, skull and brain, in early pregnancy. But a new study highlights another important consequence of low folate; impaired brain development.
Previous animal studies have found that low folate in pregnancy can reduce brain cell formation and brain size. And human studies have also suggested important effects of low folate on head circumference (an indirect measure of brain size) and links to poor neurological development, lower intelligence and increased risk of behavioural disorders.
Based on this research a team from the Erasmus University Medical Center, Rotterdam, The Netherlands conducted a study aiming to explore the longer term impact of low folate on brain size and structure, and cognitive and/or psychological problems in school-aged children.
Using cognitive and behavioral assessments along with brain MRI imaging they found that lower blood folate in mothers during pregnancy predicted poorer cognitive performance and smaller total brain volume at 6-years of age. They also found that children whose mothers had higher blood homocysteine levels (an indirect marker of low folate) during early pregnancy had substantially lower intelligence and poorer cognitive performance. No associations with psychological problems were found.
“Through the epigenetic mechanism of DNA (hypo) methylation, folate deficiency in pregnancy can possibly modify gene expression, causing long-lasting changes in the biological programming of brain development,” commented the investigators.
This study emphasizes the importance of optimal nutrition during pregnancy for healthy brain development in children and later in life.
Ars CL, Nijs IM, Marroun HE, et al. Prenatal folate, homocysteine and vitamin B12 levels and child brain volumes, cognitive development and psychological functioning: the Generation R Study. Br J Nutr. 2016 Jan 22:1-9. [Epub ahead of print]