The importance of vitamin D during childhood development is pretty well established – both the UK and US health departments recommend infants be given daily supplements. But new research is throwing further weight behind the argument that this little nudge along could begin earlier in the developmental chain. It links vitamin D deficiency in pregnant mothers with autistic traits in the child a few years down the track.

Most of the vitamin D we rely on to grow healthy and strong bones comes from the sun, though it can also be found in a few foods like oily fish and eggs. But things like air quality, long and cold winters at higher latitudes or simply covering up to avoid dangerous exposure can limit the amount of vitamin D people draw from sunlight.

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In pregnancy as in regular life, vitamin D is seen as important because it promotes healthy bone development, in this case of the unborn child. Now scientists at Australia's University of Queensland and the Erasmus Medical Centre in the Netherlands have uncovered new evidence suggesting that it also plays an important role in brain development.

The researchers examined around 4,200 blood samples from pregnant women and their children and discovered a link between autism and low levels of vitamin D. More specifically, they found that pregnant women who were vitamin D deficient at 20 weeks gestation were more likely to have a child with autistic traits by the age of six.

Rather than taking in more sunlight and the heightened risk of skin cancer that it carries, the researchers suggest that making inexpensive and safe vitamin D supplements available to at-risk groups may be a better path forward.

"This study provides further evidence that low vitamin D is associated with neurodevelopmental disorders," says Professor John McGrath from the University of Queensland. "Just as taking folate in pregnancy has reduced the incidence of spina bifida, the result of this study suggests that prenatal Vitamin D supplements may reduce the incidence of autism."

The research was published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

Source: University of Queensland