Background: Although maternal folate insufficiency is a risk factor for fetal neural tube defects (NTDs), there is controversy about whether vitamin B12 (B12) insufficiency is also associated with an increased risk of NTDs.
Aim: To investigate whether low maternal B12 is associated with an increased risk of fetal NTDs.
Design: Systematic review.
Methods: A systematic search of Medline between 1980 and October 2002, with an examination of the citations of all retrieved studies. Studies were included that: (i) used a cohort or case-control design; (ii) included case mothers with a prior or current NTD-affected pregnancy; (iii) assessed a group of unaffected 'controls'; and (iv) measured the vitamin B12 status of all participants.
Results: Overall, 17 case-control studies were included, mean sample size 33 cases and 93 controls. In 5/6, mean amniotic fluid B12 concentration was significantly lower in case mothers than in controls. Of 11 that measured maternal serum or plasma B12, three observed a significantly lower mean concentration in case mothers vs. controls, while five others found a non-significant lower trend in the case group. One study observed a significantly higher mean concentration of maternal serum methylmalonic acid among the maternal cases, while another found a non-significant lower mean concentration of plasma holo-transcobalamin. Five studies estimated the risk of NTDs in relation to low B12 or B12-related metabolic markers: it was significantly increased in three studies, with a non-significant trend in the fourth.
Discussion: There seems to be a moderate association between low maternal B12 status and the risk of fetal NTDs. However, several design limitations, and the inclusion of few study participants, may have under-represented this. A large observational study, using reliable and valid indicators of B12 status in early pregnancy, could best assess the association between B12 insufficiency and the risk of fetal NTDs.