According to Dutch researcher Pascal Groenen, a balanced diet reduces the risk of a baby with spina bifida. He investigated how different nutritional components affected the risk of developing this condition.
Low concentrations of myo-inositol, zinc or vitamin B12 in the blood or a slightly elevated glucose concentration in the blood increase the risk of having a child with the congenital abnormality spina bifida.
Myo-inositol (hexahydroxycyclohexane) plays an important role in many biological processes in humans. It is produced by the human body and is also absorbed from food. Zinc is necessary for the production of proteins and therefore plays an important role in almost all metabolic processes. Vitamin B12 is important for a good functioning of the nervous system and facilitates the effect of folic acid. Zinc and vitamin B12 are very common nutrients. They are found for example in fish, eggs, milk, meat (vitamin B12) and vegetables (zinc). The research results underline the importance of a balanced diet prior to and during the initial weeks of pregnancy.
Since 1993, the Health Council of the Netherlands has advised women who want to become pregnant to take folic acid (vitamin B11) supplements in order to reduce the chance of a child with spina bifida. Groenen's research demonstrates that folic acid is not the only nutrient which plays a role in the prevention of spina bifida. Further research must show whether taking myo-inositol, zinc or vitamin B12 supplements is indeed worthwhile.
Groenen's research was prompted by the discovery that myo-inositol can prevent 70% of the cases of spina bifida in mice. This lead to Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre (in cooperation with all spina bifida teams and the patient association BOSK/VSOP) setting up a large-scale study into the role of nutrition, lifestyle and genetic factors in the development of spina bifida in humans. In total 132 families with a child with spina bifida and 236 control families have taken part in the study.
Spina bifida is a serious abnormality of the central nervous system, which develops during the first four weeks of pregnancy. In the most serious form the skin and vertebrae of the back are not completely closed. As a result of this the nerves are often damaged and consequently most of the patients are paralysed.
In the Netherlands, 1 in every 2000 children is born with spina bifida. The abnormality is often associated with hydrocephalus. The fluid in the head exerts considerable pressure on the brain, as a result of which babies with spina bifida have a higher risk of brain damage.
The research was funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research.