Touching Lives - June 2004
The link between folic acid and preventing spina bifida
For example, many women now know that taking folic acid before conception and during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy substantially reduces the risk of having a baby with spina bifida — a fault in the spinal column in which one or more vertebrae fail to form properly, causing damage to the central nervous system. But without Action Medical Research funding, the link between folic acid and the prevention of spina bifida may never have come to light.
Soon after vitamins were discovered at the beginning of the twentieth century, a link was detected between poor diet — particularly a diet deficient in certain vitamins — and a higher incidence of birth defects. Two Action Medical Research funded projects first indicated that folic acid, a water-soluble vitamin found within the B group of vitamins, was a significant factor in preventing spina bifida.
In 1959 Action Medical Research gave a grant to Professor Richard Smithells to establish a register of malformed babies born in Liverpool. This register enabled him to identify families who had babies with the specific defect of spina bifida — the first step on the road to finding the link between the condition and poor diet.
Taking the research forward
Through a second Action Medical Research grant awarded in 1970, Professor Smithells and his team went on to measure the levels of different vitamins in blood samples of nearly 1,000 women in the early stages of pregnancy.
It was this research that first indicated that folic acid was a significant factor in preventing spina bifida. The findings were confirmed by various subsequent studies, and had a massive and global impact. The UK and US Governments are among many to now advocate the taking of folic acid in early pregnancy.
Folic acid occurs naturally as folate in foods such as brussels sprouts, green beans, pulses, and yeast extract. And some foods such as breakfast cereals are now often fortified with the vitamin. However the specific causes of spina bifida are still unknown. It is only partially hereditary, and researchers continue to search for explanations. But in the meantime Action Medical Research continues to spread the word about the importance of folic acid in beating this crippling condition.