Retinoic acids (13-cis and 13-trans) are known teratogens, and their precursor is retinol, a form of vitamin A. In 1995, Rothman et al demonstrated an association between excessive vitamin A, >10,000 IU/day, during the first trimester of pregnancy and teratogenic effects, particularly in the central nervous system. However, vitamin A deficiency has long been known to be deleterious to the mother and fetus. Therefore, there may be a narrow therapeutic ratio for vitamin A during pregnancy that has not previously been fully appreciated. Neurodevelopmental disorders may not be apparent by macroscopic brain examination or imaging, and proving the existence of a behavioral teratogen is not straightforward. However, an excess of retinoic acid and some neurodevelopmental disorders are both associated with abnormalities in cerebellar morphology. Physical and chemical evidence strongly supports the notion that beta carotene crosses the placenta and is metabolized to retinol. Only very limited amounts of beta carotene are stored in fetal fat cells as evidenced by the fact that maternal fat is yellow from beta carotene, whereas non-brown neonatal fat is white. Furthermore, newborns of carotenemic mothers do not share the yellow complexion of their mothers. The excess 13-trans retinoic acid derived from metabolized beta carotene in the fetus increases the concentration of the more teratogenic 13-cis retinoic acid since the isomerization equilibrium is shifted to the left. Therefore, this paper proposes that consideration be given to monitoring all potential sources of fetal 13-cis and 13-trans retinoic acid, including nutritional supplements, dietary retinol, and beta carotene, particularly in the first trimester of pregnancy.
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