With the benefits of taking folic acid supplements prior to and in early pregnancy already well documented, Ulster University researchers will now examine the potential long-term effect on brain function and psychological development among children whose mothers continued to take the supplement during their second and third trimester.
The new project will also look at how these effects may be passed on, in addition to the information contained in the genes, and will incorporate research from the fields of psychology and computing as well as nutrition and genetics.
The funding is part of an exclusive £3 million UK-wide initiative established by the UK Research Councils for eight projects at just six UK universities, which will look at the effects of early life experiences on long term health.
The Ulster University research will build on a controlled trial carried out by the University on late pregnancy folic acid supplementation, and will focus on the children of the pregnant women who took part and how the possible benefits may be passed on to children.
Professor Colum Walsh from Ulster University said: "The importance of folic acid in early pregnancy is well known and Ulster University research has been crucial to recent awareness campaigns and informing medical advice.
"Expectant mothers and those of child-bearing age are advised to take folic acid supplements to help minimise the risk of serious birth defects, particularly spina bifida which can form within the first four weeks of pregnancy, before many women even know that they are pregnant. However, whether folic acid continues to deliver beneficial effects later in pregnancy is not so clear.
"This funding will now enable Ulster University's world-leading researchers to investigate the possible long-term benefits of folic acid on brain function and psychological development among children. It will also allow them to investigate how these benefits may be passed on in an extra layer of information known as epigenetics.
"This study not only marks an exciting step forward in folic acid research and genetics, it underlines Ulster University's influential and global position at the forefront of research in this field."