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FASEB J. 2010 Nov;24(11):4167-74. doi: 10.1096/fj.10-165084. Epub 2010 Jul 14.

Folic acid in early pregnancy: a public health success story.

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Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, George Washington University School of Medicine, Washington, District of Columbia, USA.


Folate is a water-soluble B vitamin that must be obtained in the diet or through supplementation. For >50 yr, it has been known that folate plays an integral role in embryonic development. In mice, inactivation of genes in the folate pathway results in malformations of the neural tube, heart, and craniofacial structures. It has been shown that diets and blood levels of women who had a fetus with a neural tube defect are low for several micronutrients, particularly folate. Periconceptional use of folic acid containing supplements decreased recurrent neural tube defects in the offspring of women with a previously affected child and the occurrence of a neural tube defect and possibly other birth defects in the offspring of women with no prior history. Based on these findings, the U.S. Public Health Service recommended that all women at risk take folic acid supplements, but many did not. Mandatory food fortification programs were introduced in numerous countries, including the United States, to improve folate nutritional status and have resulted in a major decrease in neural tube defect prevalence. The success story of folate represents the cooperation of embryologists, experimentalists, epidemiologists, public health scientists, and policymakers.

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