Australian researchers find link between vitamin D deficiency and autism

pregnant mum and toddler at beach

A study of over 4000 pregnant women and children by the Queensland Brain Institute has found that those who were deficient in vitamin D scored significantly higher on autism scales than those with adequate vitamin D.

Low vitamin D link

The 4200 kids and mums studied were part of the “Generation R” study in Rotterdam, the Netherlands and the ABC reports that the vitamin D-autism link was strongest around the time of birth, as well as around mid-gestation.

Vitamin D is essential for overall health, but specifically for bone and muscle health. It can be absorbed by exposure to the sun and is found in fish, eggs and vitamin D fortified foods (such as some milk products and margarine.) It can also be obtained via vitamin D supplements.

Prenatal supplement?

“The study found pregnant women with low vitamin D were more likely to have children with autistic traits by the age of six,” the ABC said.

“Just as taking folate in pregnancy has reduced the incidence of spina bifida, the results of this study suggest that prenatal vitamin D supplements may reduce the incidence of autism,” study lead author Professor John McGrath said.

“Vitamin D is a very safe, cheap, publicly acceptable supplement to take and reducing vitamin D deficiencies is so easy to do,” Professor McGrath explained.

He was hopeful that this new research may lead to healthier babies, down the track.

“Maybe we could prevent serious mental disorders like autism by making sure women have optimal vitamin D during pregnancy.”

Increasingly diagnosed

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are general terms applied to a number of complex disorders of brain development.

Characteristics of autism may include, in varying degrees, difficulties in social interaction, difficulties with verbal and nonverbal communication and the display of restricted and/or repetitive behaviours.

The 2012 Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers (SDAC) found that an estimated 115,400 Australians (0.5 percent) had autism. This was a huge 79% increase on the 64,400 people estimated to have the condition in 2009.

More to the autism story

While these new findings are very promising, other experts in the field say that we need to look at the bigger picture.

“Autism is linked to dozens if not hundreds of different mechanisms which lead to this condition,”  Telethon Kids Institute Professor Andrew Whitehouse told the ABC.

“This study gives us an inkling of one of these possible mechanisms but I think before we think about anything else, and that includes treatment studies, we need to see this finding replicated.”

Professor Whitehouse said it was important to acknowledge that autism was influenced by more than just vitamin D.

“We know that genetic factors play a major role in the developmental pathways that may lead to autism.”


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