It remains to be seen if the findings hold up to the scrutiny of peer review and, so, warrant publication in a medical journal. Even if they do, after that, the correlation would need to be seen again, and again, in multiple studies, before it could reliably be said to exist. Then, if it does exist, the challenge would be to attempt to figure out what drives those elevated levels in a person’s blood.
Which is to say, we are so far from saying that consuming excessive folate causes autism. But we can clearly say, as we have for years, that maternal deficiencies in folate cause neural tube defects—thousands every year—and these are readily prevented by consuming enough folate.
None of this leaves the average person in a place other than they were before yesterday. Anyone who’s eating folate pills or multivitamins by the handful should stop doing that, but I would’ve told them the same thing last week. There’s never been reason to assume that it was prudent to consume enormous amounts of folate or any other substance.
Fallin told me she’s done a lot of interviews in the last couple days, and that she’s “slightly nervous” that her findings will be misconstrued. “There's this danger that the message would be that folate supplementation is bad. And that's not at all what we saw.”
This is the danger that made me feel like I needed to write about the study. It could have been avoided if Hopkins didn’t issue a press release, essentially asking media outlets to take this information—from an unpublished abstract—to lay audiences.
I asked their director of public relations Stephanie Desmond what their rationale was. As part of a longer email reply, she noted that publicizing abstracts is a common practice, and that “because the science presented at this meeting may have public health implications if confirmed in additional studies, we felt that we should keep the public informed about these scientific developments as they emerge.”
The press release, Fallin corroborated, came about because the International Meeting for Autism Research is happening this week. “The organizers of the meeting select presentations that they think are newsworthy to create a press presentation,” she noted. “The organization that runs the meeting wants to make sure that ASD research and findings are communicated to the public.”
And, these findings will go to peer review?
“We intend to submit literally this week,” she said.
I understand that if people have new information that, they believe, indicates an immediate threat to fellow humans—that there is lead in drinking water, say, or that a subway tunnel is structurally unsound—the instinct to get that information to the public right away is appropriate. They could wait a few months to quadruple-check the findings with an international consortium of experts, but that also might not be prudent.