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Nutr Res Rev. 2006 Jun;19(1):117-36. doi: 10.1079/NRR2006119.

One-carbon metabolism in psychiatric illness.

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  • 1Centre for Nutrition and Food Safety, School of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences, University of Surrey, Guildford, Surrey GU2 7XH, UK.


The cost of psychiatric illness to the UK economy was recently estimated at pound77 billion annually. Despite years of research no firm aetiological explanation exists, and with no physiological or biochemical markers diagnosis is made entirely on a behavioural basis. All current pharmacological therapies are associated with serious long-term side effects. Substantial evidence supports the involvement of one-carbon cycle dysregulation in psychiatric illness, but this is not currently used as a basis for diagnosis or treatment. The present paper reviews the evidence for one-carbon cycle dysregulation in schizophrenic, bipolar, depressed and autistic patients. Also presented are novel findings from the field of epigenetics, which demonstrate how the one-carbon cycle-derived methyl donor S-adenosylmethionine influences the expression of key genes in the brain affecting memory, learning, cognition and behaviour, genes whose expression is reduced to varying degrees in these patient groups. Clinical evidence that nutritional supplements can rectify one-carbon cycle activity, and restore normal gene expression, suggests a novel approach to the development of biochemical tests and simple, non-harmful treatments for some psychiatric patients. Conversely, evidence from animal studies highlights the dangers of exposing the unborn fetus to very high dietary levels of folic acid, a one-carbon cycle cofactor. Fetal adaptations to a high-folate environment may interfere with folate metabolism postnatally, with serious consequences for the epigenetic regulation of gene expression. The public health implications of these diverse scenarios indicate an urgent need for further research in this field.

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