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Why We Do Research

Birth defects can cause lifelong problems with health, growth, and learning. We want to find ways to prevent birth defects. To do that, we need to know what causes them. Research gives us important clues about things that might raise or lower the risk of having a baby with a birth defect. Those clues help us develop sound public health policies for prevention.

Research has shown that taking folic acid before getting pregnant and in early pregnancy lowers the risk of having a baby with certain birth defects. This research finding led to the advice that all women who can get pregnant should take 400 micrograms of folic acid daily. In order to learn more, CDC continues to conduct folic acid research.

Current Folic Acid Research

National Birth Defects Prevention Study

The National Birth Defects Prevention Study is the largest population-based U.S. study looking at potential risk factors and causes of birth defects. Current folic acid research activities include:

  • Looking at how a woman’s intake of micronutrients, including folic acid, may affect the risk for specific birth defects.
  • Studying why Hispanics appear to be at higher risk for neural tube defects.
  • Learning about women’s behaviors related to preventing birth defects, including folic acid use and alcohol use.
U.S.-China Collaborative Project

For more than 20 years, CDC and the Peking University Health Science Center (PUHSC) have collaborated on birth defects research. In the mid 1990’s, CDC and PUHSC began evaluating a large-scale community intervention program in China.

In this program, they tested whether giving women 400 micrograms of folic acid before and during early pregnancy prevents neural tube defects (NTDs). Among the babies of women who took the daily recommended amount of folic acid, the risk of having an NTD dropped 85% in high-prevalence areas and 41% in areas with prevalence similar to the United States. In addition, research from this community intervention program showed that folic acid use before and during early pregnancy did not increase a woman’s risk for miscarriage or multiple births.

The CDC has used the China collaboration to explore topics such as folic acid and infant death rates, congenital heart defects, changes in blood level of folic acid with different folic acid doses, and long-term evaluation of the women and children from the community intervention program.

National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey

The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) is a program of studies designed to evaluate the health and nutritional status of adults and children in the United States. The survey is unique in that it combines interviews and physical examinations. The CDC uses information from this study to look at the population’s folic acid intake as well as blood levels of folate and other micronutrients.

Highlighted Articles

Key Findings: Folate Deficiency is Common in Women of Reproductive Age
The Journal of Nutrition has published a study that looks at the amount of folate and vitamin B12 in the blood of non-pregnant women of reproductive age in Belize.
(Published Date: August 18, 2017)

Key Findings: The Promotora de Salud Model Promotes Positive Health Behavior Change
The Journal of Women’s Health has published a new study examining the use of the Promotora de Salud model for folic acid education in Hispanic communities.
(Published Date: January 9, 2017)

Key Findings: Cost savings of spina bifida prevention after folic acid fortification in the United States
Recently, the American Journal of Preventive Medicine published a new study looking at the costs associated with a United States requirement that folic acid (a B vitamin) be added to all cereal grain products labeled as enriched (also called folic acid fortification)
(Published Date: January 11, 2016)

Folic Acid Fortification
Folic acid fortification continues to prevent neural tube defects.
(Published Date: January 2015)

Folic acid use among pregnant women who have had a past pregnancy affected by a neural tube defect
CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report has published a new study looking at folic acid use before pregnancy in women who have had a previous pregnancy affected by a neural tube defect (NTD).
(Published Date: January 2015)

Key Findings: Lack of Vitamins Containing Folic Acid and Diabetes-Associated Birth Defects
Recently, the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology published a CDC study: “Lack of Periconceptional Vitamins or Supplements That Contain Folic Acid and Diabetes Mellitus-Associated Birth Defects”.
(Published Date: December 2014)

Women Need 400 Micrograms of Folic Acid Every Day
The B vitamin folic acid helps prevent birth defects. If a woman has enough folic acid in her body before and while she is pregnant, her baby is less likely to have a major birth defect of the brain or spine.
(Published Date: December 2014)

Plan Ahead: Folic Acid Can Help Prevent Certain Birth Defects
Every woman needs to get enough folic acid each day, even if she does not plan to become pregnant.
(Published: January 11, 2017)

Pop Quiz!
How much do you know about Folic Acid? Take our quiz and find out.
(Published: January 7, 2013)

The Importance of Folic Acid
Read Anifa’s story and find out what CDC is doing to help.
(Published: May 7, 2012)