Neural tube birth defects such as spina bifida could be prevented by carrying out a simple blood test on pregnant women, new research suggests.
The blood test measures levels of folate – a naturally occurring form of vitamin B – in the blood.
Previous research has shown that women with lower folate concentrations in their red blood cells have a higher risk of having a baby with a neural tube defect.
The new research, undertaken by an international team of researchers, analysed data from two large Chinese studies that involved well over 200,000 babies, 250 of whom were born with neural tube defects.
It found that women with low red blood cell folate concentrations were more than four times likelier to have a baby with neural tube defects than those with concentrations just over twice as high.
The authors of the study, published in The British Medical Journal, say their findings indicate that the higher concentrations could prevent neural tube defects that are sensitive to folate concentrations at the point in a woman’s pregnancy when the closure of the neural tube is completed.
They say the findings could help scientists develop and monitor folic acid fortification schemes by using folate concentrations as a biomarker to pinpoint those most at risk.
Taking synthetically-produced folic acid before and during the early stages of pregnancy is known to cut the chances of neural tube birth defects.
It is not known exactly how much folic acid is needed to prevent the defects, but current advice recommends women take 400 micrograms per day.