Folic acid metabolism and mechanisms of neural tube defects

Ciba Found Symp. 1994;181:180-7; discussion 187-91. doi: 10.1002/9780470514559.ch11.


Folate acts as a cofactor for enzymes involved in DNA and RNA biosynthesis. Folate is also involved in the supply of methyl groups to the so-called methylation cycle, which uses methionine and makes homocysteine. The folate cofactor, N5-methyltetrahydrofolate, donates its methyl group to a vitamin B12-dependent enzyme, methionine synthase, which recycles homocysteine back to methionine. The cell's ability to methylate important compounds such as proteins, lipids and myelin will be compromised by deficiency of folate or vitamin B12, resulting in impaired cellular function. Methionine synthase plays another role: it converts circulating N5-methyltetrahydrofolate into tetrahydrofolate. The latter but not the former can act as a substrate for polyglutamate synthase, thereby becoming retained in the cell as polyglutamate. Interruption of DNA biosynthesis or methylation reactions could prevent the proper closure of the neural tube. Such inhibition could be caused by simple deficiency of either folic acid or vitamin B12. Studies comparing serum folate and vitamin B12 status in women who have had an affected pregnancy to those in control women indicate no difference between the two groups and show that most cases are not clinically deficient in either vitamin. A small number of studies using the level of folate in red blood cells, which is a better reflection of tissue stores, confirm this, suggesting instead a metabolic impairment in the biochemical functions of one of these vitamins. The trials using folic acid to prevent neural tube defects thus seem to be effectively overcoming a metabolic block rather than treating folate deficiency.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Female
  • Folic Acid / metabolism*
  • Folic Acid / therapeutic use
  • Humans
  • Neural Tube Defects / etiology*
  • Neural Tube Defects / metabolism
  • Neural Tube Defects / prevention & control


  • Folic Acid