• Article

Folic acid supplementation for the prevention of neural tube defects


Viswanathan, M., Treiman, K. A., Kish-Doto, J., Cook Middleton, J., Coker-Schwimmer, E. J. L., & Nicholson, W. K. (2017). Folic acid supplementation for the prevention of neural tube defects: An updated evidence report and systematic review for the US Preventive Services Task Force. JAMA - Journal of the American Medical Association, 317(2), 190-203. DOI: 10.1001/jama.2016.19193


Importance: Neural tube defects are among the most common congenital anomalies in the United States. Periconceptional folic acid supplementation is a primary care-relevant preventive intervention.

Objective: To review the evidence on folic acid supplementation for preventing neural tube defects to inform the US Preventive Services Task Force for an updated Recommendation Statement.

Data Sources: MEDLINE, Cochrane Library, EMBASE, and trial registries through January 28, 2016, with ongoing surveillance through November 11, 2016; references; experts.

Study Selection: English-language studies of folic acid supplementation in women. Excluded were poor-quality studies; studies of prepubertal girls, men, women without the potential for childbearing, and neural tube defect recurrence; and studies conducted in developing countries.

Data Extraction and Synthesis: Two investigators independently reviewed abstracts, full-text articles, and risk of bias of included studies. One investigator extracted data and a second checked accuracy. Because of heterogeneity, data were not pooled.

Main Outcomes and Measures: Neural tube defects, harms of treatment (twinning, respiratory outcomes).

Results: A total of 24 studies (N > 58 860) were included. In 1 randomized clinical trial from Hungary initiated in 1984, incidence of neural tube defects for folic acid supplementation compared with trace element supplementation was 0% vs 0.25% (Peto odds ratio [OR], 0.13 [95% CI, 0.03-0.65]; n = 4862). Odds ratios from cohort studies recruiting participants between 1984 and 1996 demonstrated beneficial associations and ranged from 0.11 to 0.27 (n = 19 982). Three of 4 case-control studies with data from 1976 through 1998 reported ORs ranging from 0.6 to 0.7 (n > 7121). Evidence of benefit led to food fortification in the United States beginning in 1998, after which no new prospective studies have been conducted. More recent case-control studies drawing from data collected after 1998 have not demonstrated a protective association consistently with folic acid supplementation, with ORs ranging from 0.93 to 1.4 and confidence intervals spanning the null (n > 13 990). Regarding harms, 1 trial (OR, 1.40 [95% CI, 0.89-2.21]; n = 4767) and 1 cohort study (OR, 1.04 [95% CI, 0.91-1.18]; n = 2620) found no statistically significant increased risk of twinning. Three systematic reviews found no consistent evidence of increased risk of asthma (OR, 1.06 [95% CI, 0.99-1.14]; n = 14 438), wheezing, or allergy.

Conclusions and Relevance: In studies conducted before the initiation of food fortification in the United States in 1998, folic acid supplementation provided protection against neural tube defects. Newer postfortification studies have not demonstrated a protective association but have the potential for misclassification and recall bias, which can attenuate the measured association of folic acid supplementation with neural tube defects.