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Autism News Round-up: Folic Acid, Autism in Ontario, and Babies

This week we look at a combination of science-based and policy-based news stories, ranging from the potential danger of folic acid during pregnancy to a heavy debate in Canadian politics to a group of babies who just might help researchers to better understand autism.

First up, folic acid is a vitamin that has been traditionally recommended to pregnant women and those who may become pregnant for decades as a preventative measure against certain birth defects. However, a new study has found that very high levels of the vitamin in mothers’ blood at the time of childbirth were linked to higher risk that their offspring would develop autism years later. However, additional research indicated a counter relationship, finding that adequate amounts of the vitamin taken at conception.

Accordingly, the research has been somewhat challenged for its rather sample size, with the researchers saying that there’s not currently a reason to depart with the common wisdom that folic acid is good in young mothers. “We are not suggesting anyone stop supplementation,” said one of the study’s authors, M. Daniele Fallin of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. But it raises an intriguing question that should be explored in other research, she said. And other experts agree: “It’s a finding that has plausibility,” said Ezra Susser, a Columbia University professor of epidemiology and psychiatry. He said other researchers have wondered whether too much folic acid can cause problems.

Moving from the conventional wisdom to unconventional political bedfellows, both the NDP and Progressive Conservative party in Canada have united in opposition to the Ontario government’s cutting of funding for children with autism receiving intensive therapy after they turn five. In town hall events held around the territory, the minister and premier continue to insist that their decision to cut kids off of Intensive Behavioural Intervention (IBI) at age five is based on the advice of their expert scientists, who apparently told them that kids over age four are no longer in the “right developmental window” to benefit from the therapy.

However, one of the government experts cited in this opinion has spoken out online and in person. Dr. Ian Dawes was recorded in conversation with a mother saying that IBI can indeed be of use to children over the age of five and that the government’s cuts are at odds with what his committee suggested. This being politics, it’s unlikely we’ll have a clear view on this anytime soon, though we hope Ontario can see past partisan rancor to support those in need.

Finally, we move from Canada to Atlanta where a pair of babies being studied at the Marcus Autism Center might hold the key to better understanding autism. By using MRI brain scans, the researchers are hoping to be able to make diagnoses earlier. “It’s been pretty cool to see what a 1-month-old’s brain looks like, and then track it at age 3 months and 6 months. (It) is just really fascinating,” said mother Julianna Cagle, whose twins Carter and Davis are taking part in the study.

Sarah Shultz, with the Marcus Autism Center, said that they want to spot when autism begins at a point before the current time of diagnosis, which is around age 2 or 3. “We know very little about how autism unfolds in those first few months,” she said. The researchers state that through their work, they are hoping to move back the period of diagnosis from between two and three years to the first few months of a baby’s life, before he or she has even begun to exhibit symptoms.