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Newsletter: Vitamin D and the developing brain

Posted on: July 17, 2005   by  John Cannell, MD


Birth Defects

Nothing frightens an expectant mother like the fear her baby will be deformed. Even worse, is the fear that a pill she took, or didn’t take, caused a birth defect. The government requires drug companies give large doses of drugs to pregnant rats and then carefully examine the baby rats for evidence of birth defects. Drugs that cause birth defects in rats are either banned or controlled. The U.S. government doesn’t wait to see if the drug causes human birth defects, they rely on animal studies.

The lack of essential nutrients, such as folic acid, also causes birth defects. Scientists first discovered this in the 1960s, again by studying rats. In 1992, the government finally took steps to prevent it by recommending supplementary folic acid for pregnant women. In 1996, the government ordered food manufacturers to fortify cereal grains with folic acid. Severe brain damage due to folic acid deficiencies fell significantly1.

Vitamin D deficiency and brain damage

Australian researchers, led by Professor John McGrath and Dr. Darryl Eyles, recently discovered that severe maternal vitamin D deficiency permanently damages the brains of baby rats. Giving extra vitamin D to the newborn rats will not reverse the damage. Noting that vitamin D deficiency is common in young women, the authors speculated that optimizing vitamin D levels in pregnant women and neonates may reduce the incidence of certain neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders2, 3

After Australian scientists found birth defects in the baby rats, Professor Axel Becker and his German colleagues confirmed that even transient vitamin D deficiency leads to subtle changes in rat behavior. Slightly enlarged ventricles, cortical aberrancies, and reduced nerve growth factors (compounds essential for the billions of connections in mammalian brains) were only some of the birth defects. Such deformities, were they to occur in the more complex human brain, should have significant and lifelong consequences on learning, memory and IQ. The Australian scientists concluded, Given the fact that vitamin D deficiency is more common than previously thought, the public health implications for the developing fetus cannot be ignored4, 5, 6

Does maternal vitamin D deficiency cause learning disabilities?

To date, no human studies exist to corroborate these animal studies. Or, do they? If vitamin D deficiency causes brain damage, then we can make certain predictions based on things we know about vitamin D. First, we know that at temperate latitudes, maternal vitamin D levels are lowest in the winter and early spring when the lack of sun means the skin makes little or no vitamin D. Second, we know vitamin D levels are lower among blacks than whites because melanin pigment in skin acts as an effective sunscreen for casual sun-exposure.

If maternal vitamin D deficiency causes fetal brain damage, more brain-damaged children will be born in the summer. (This will be true at temperate latitudes, but not in the tropics where the sun makes vitamin D year-round). Brains of summer-born children are making neuronal connections at the fastest rate during the winter and early spring when their mothers vitamin D levels are lowest. If vitamin D deficiency damaged human brains, then summer-born children should be retained more often, do worse in school, and display more learning disabilities.

At latitude 42 degrees, Boston, Massachusetts has a marked seasonal variation in 25(OH) vitamin D levels. Dr. Nathlie Badian of Harvard found that boys born in July and August were seven times more likely to have learning disabilities than those born in the cooler months. In her study, the summer students were not the youngest – the fall students were the youngest -and yet the fall-born students had much less disability than the summer-born children7.

Northeastern Georgia also has significant seasonal variations in 25(OH) vitamin D levels. Dr. Roy Martin of the University of Georgia recently reviewed the literature and conducted his own study as well. He found, children born from June through August were more frequently retained, performed lower on standardized tests, and were more frequently diagnosed with specific learning disabilities. Martin added, The overall effect on the children born June through August was enormous8

In tropical Hawaii, which should have much less seasonal variation in 25(OH) vitamin D levels, Dr. Grace Diamond found, as expected, that the youngest students had higher rates of disabilities. However, unlike Georgia or Boston, she found no evidence of excessive learning disabilities in summer-born Hawaiian children. Such latitudinal variation in the incidence of learning disabilities in summer born children suggests maternal vitamin D deficiency may cause learning disabilities9.

Dyslexia, poor school attendance, low Apgar scores, and low birth weight

Some studies show summer born children are also more likely to suffer from dyslexia and poor school attendance. Dr. Richard Livingston, of the University of Arkansas Medical School, found, the risk of dyslexia among children born in May, June, or July is more than double that for those born in other months. Pregnant women exposed to the lowest temperatures in the second trimester (and thus the least vitamin D) have infants with lower birth weights10, 11, 12.

A particular type of schizophrenia, called deficit schizophrenia, has consistently been found to be more common in summer-born patients. Patients with deficit schizophrenia have a poor prognosis and display more evidence of brain damage than other patients with schizophrenia display13, 14, 15.

African Americans are at much higher risk

If maternal vitamin D deficiency causes brain damage, then blacks will be more affected than whites. Vitamin D deficiency discriminates based on race. The darker a mothers skin, the lower her 25(OH) vitamin D level, and the less vitamin D is available to help her baby develop. Numerous studies document that black mothers are more likely to give birth to infants who weigh less and die shortly after birth. Black babies also have lower Apgar scores and black children have higher rates of mild mental retardation16, 17, 18, 19, 20.

This newsletter will not delve into the hundreds of other studies showing dramatic academic differences between black and white children, or the charges of racism that inexorably follow any such discussion. Obviously, any suggestions that black babies are more likely to be born brain damaged have profound political implications. Remember. We are not talking about genetics. We are talking about a modifiable risk factor, a natural, safe, supplement costing pennies a day: simply treating pregnant women who are vitamin D deficient.

Severe vitamin D deficiency twenty times more common in young black women

In 2002, U.S. government scientists at the Centers for Disease Control reported that severe vitamin D deficiency is 24 times more common among young African American women than young white women. Dr. Shanna Nesby-ODell and her colleagues at the CDC found that blood levels were much lower in young black women than young white women. Almost 50% of young black women had levels < 15 ng/ml. (Remember that most vitamin D experts recommend levels above 40 ng/ml). Most frightening of all, 12 percent of young black women had levels < 10 ng/ml (compared to ½ of 1 percent of white women). Levels that low approach those seen in mother rats that give birth to brain damaged babies. It may be that white children have a huge developmental advantage over black children, an advantage that begins at conception21.

We do not know if maternal vitamin D deficiency damages human brains like it does rat brains. We do know young children with the least supplemental vitamin D are at a five-fold higher risk for developing type 1 diabetes later in life. Male children with the least supplemental vitamin D also suffer a similar risk for developing schizophrenia later in life. Now it appears possible that children with the lowest amount of vitamin D during critical fetal development suffer irreversible brain damage22, 23.

How much vitamin D do women need to prevent vitamin D deficiency during pregnancy?

About ten times more than the government recommends, according to Professors Bruce Hollis and Carol Wagner of the Medical University of South Carolina. How much do pregnant black women need? A lot more than whites, say Hollis and Wagner. These experts find the government’s recommendation of 400 units a day for pregnant black women is essentially meaningless; such amounts do not raise blood levels in pregnant women. In other words, the governments current recommendations for pregnant black women are roughly equivalent to doing nothing. Pregnant women of all races should keep 25(OH) vitamin D levels around 40 ng/ml throughout pregnancy. Hollis and Wagner find it takes up to 4,000 units a day, ten times the governments recommendation24, 25.

Government inaction: incompetence or indifference

For forty years, from 1932 to 1972, the U.S. government experimented on 399 black men in Tuskegee, Alabama. The government knew – from studying experimental rabbits – that syphilis can progress and cause terrible damage, including permanent brain damage. However, the government didn’t exactly know how syphilis affected African Americans. The prevalent theory in 1932 was that blacks would suffer less brain damage than whites. Government doctors said they wanted more data. So they withheld treatment, even after penicillin was discovered and found to be effective. The government doctors simply followed the men, carefully studying them to find out if syphilis damaged black brains as much as it did rabbit brains26, 27.

This newsletter is not contending that the U.S. government is repeating the abominable experiments of Tuskegee. There is a great difference between using blacks as guinea pigs and doing nothing. Today, the government is simply doing nothing. They will tell you they need more studies about maternal vitamin D deficiency, and we do. There is not question that more research is needed. The question is: what should we do in the meantime?

If we do nothing, we are in effect continuing this Kafkaesque natural experiment on pregnant black women and the brains of their unborn children. The choice is either doing nothing while we conduct more studies, or treating vitamin D deficiency in pregnancy while we conduct more studies. The risk of doing nothing is great (as with syphilis) while the risk of treating vitamin D deficiency in pregnancy is minimal (much safer than penicillin).

Seventy years ago, the government had reason to think penicillin would help syphilis because studies on experimental rabbits demonstrated its effectiveness. More recently, the government started supplementing young women with folate to prevent brain-damaged babies after animal studies and clinical trials demonstrated its effectiveness. Now the government knows animal studies show severe maternal vitamin D deficiency causes fetal brain damage. The government also knows 12 percent of young black women in the United States are severely vitamin D deficient, compared to only one-half of 1 percent of young white women.

If rat studies showed a drug damages brains like maternal vitamin D deficiency damages brains, the government would immediately ban the drug. The Australian scientists plead with the government, saying their research cannot be ignored. Perhaps the Australians dont know how the U.S. government ignored the suffering of black men is Tuskegee Alabama. Will the government again do nothing but wait to see if African Americans suffer? Will the U.S. government simply call for more studies as we all wait to see if maternal vitamin D deficiency damages black brains like it does rat brains?

2 Responses to Newsletter: Vitamin D and the developing brain

  1. John

    A decade after this article and the government has done nothing to reduce black white health disparities. Black lives don’t matter to politicians.

  2. Rita Celone Umile

    It it so much more complicated than this. What you say would only be true if vitamin D deficiency was recognized by mainstream medicine as a serious deficiency, and then medicine purposefully went out of its way to treat blacks different than white. But, you see, mainstream medicine for the most part does not view vitamin D deficiency as a real deficiency. Whites and blacks alike are extremely deficient. I live in an area that should have some of the very best care and research in the entire world, due to the luxury of money coupled with education. But the research hospital and its corresponding academic institution just barely recognize vitamin D deficiency with 20 ng/ml being deficient and 30 ng/ml being sufficient. It is not a black versus white thing. It is rather a vitamin D ignorant type of thing. Take my word for it. I have been outreaching now for over three years.

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