Babies exposed to COVID in the womb show neurodevelopmental changes

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Summary: Babies whose mothers contracted COVID-19 during pregnancy had greater difficulty relaxing and adjusting their bodies while being held than those whose mothers did not contract Covid-19. In addition, babies born to infected mothers had greater difficulty controlling their head and shoulder movements. The results suggest that prenatal COVID-19 infection can impair babies’ motor development.

Source: European Psychiatric Association

Babies born to mothers who contracted COVID-19 during pregnancy appear to have differences in neurodevelopmental outcomes at 6 weeks, according to a preliminary analysis published in the 30th week of the studyth European Congress of Psychiatry.

project leader dr. Rosa Ayesa Arriola said: “Not all babies born to COVID-infected mothers show neurodevelopmental differences, but our data show their risk is increased compared to those who were not exposed to COVID in utero. We need a larger study to confirm the exact magnitude of the difference.”

Researchers found that babies born to infected mothers have greater difficulty relaxing and adjusting their bodies when held compared to infants born to uninfected mothers, particularly if the infection occurred late in pregnancy.

In addition, infants born to infected mothers tend to show greater difficulty controlling head and shoulder movements. These changes suggest a possible COVID-19 effect on motor skills (movement control).

The results come from an initial analysis by Spain’s COGESTCOV-19 project, which tracked the course of pregnancy and baby development in mothers infected with COVID-19.

Researchers are presenting pregnancy and postnatal assessment data 6 weeks after birth, but the project will continue to see if there are longer-term effects. The group will monitor the language and motor development of infants between the ages of 18 and 42 months.

The first assessment compared babies born to 21 COVID-positive pregnant women and their babies with 21 healthy controls who attended Marqués de Valdecilla University Hospital in Santander, Spain.

The mothers underwent a series of tests during and after pregnancy. These included hormonal and other biochemical tests (measuring things like cortisol levels, immunological response, etc.), saliva tests, movement responses, and psychological questionnaires.

All analyzes were adjusted for infant age, gender, and other factors.

Postnatal tests included the Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale (NBAS), which measures the baby’s movement and behavior.

Researcher Ms. Águeda Castro Quintas (University of Barcelona, ​​​​Network Center for Biomedical Research in Mental Health) said:

“We found that certain elements of the NBAS measurement were altered in 6-week-old infants exposed to the SARS-COV-2 virus. In fact, they respond slightly differently to being held or cuddled.”

“We were particularly sensitive when conducting these tests. Each mother and baby was closely examined by clinicians with specialist training in the field and in the tests.

“We have to note that these are preliminary results, but this is part of a project following a larger sample of 100 mothers and their babies. They were also monitored during pregnancy and after birth.

“We also plan to compare these mothers and babies with data from another similar project (the epi project) looking at the effects of stress and genetics on a child’s neurodevelopment.”

Águeda Castro Quintas continued:

“This is an ongoing project and we are in the early stages. We found that babies whose mothers were exposed to COVID showed neurological effects at 6 weeks, but we don’t know if these effects will lead to longer-term problems, longer-term observation can help us understand this.

Co-researcher Nerea San Martín González added:

“Of course, with babies that young, there are some things that we just can’t measure, like language skills or cognition. We also need to be aware that this is a comparatively small sample, so we are redoing the work and will be following this over time. We need a larger sample to determine the role of infection on neurodevelopmental changes in offspring and the contribution of other environmental factors.

“In the meantime, we must emphasize the importance of medical monitoring to facilitate a healthy pregnancy and discuss any concerns with your doctor wherever necessary.”

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project leader dr. Rosa Ayesa Arriola said:

“This is the right time to establish international collaborations that would allow us to assess the long-term neurodevelopment of children born during the COVID-19 pandemic. Research in this area is crucial to understanding and preventing possible neurological problems and psychological vulnerabilities in these children in the years to come.”

This shows the belly of a pregnant woman
Researchers found that babies born to infected mothers have greater difficulty relaxing and adjusting their bodies when held compared to infants born to uninfected mothers, particularly if the infection occurred late in pregnancy. The image is in the public domain

In an independent comment, Dr. Livio Provenzi (University of Pavia, Italy):

“There is a great need to study both the direct and indirect effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the health and well-being of parents and infants. Pregnancy is a stage in life that shapes much of our later development, and adversity during pregnancy can leave long-lasting biological scars.

“These results from the group of Dr. Rosa Ayesa Arriola reinforce the evidence for epigenetic changes in infants born to mothers exposed to pandemic-related stress during pregnancy. It shows that we need more large-scale, international research to understand the developmental impact of this health crisis and provide better quality of care for parents and infants.”

dr Provenzi was not involved in this work.

Note: The epi project is a multi-centre project involving the Hospital Clínic of Barcelona and the Hospital Universitario Central de Asturias. It looks at the effects of genetics and stress on the baby’s outcome. It is taught by Prof. Dr. Lourdes Fañanás directed.

Financing: This research was supported by the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness, Instituto de Salud Carlos III, through the University of Barcelona Multicenter Project – Intramural Grants (SAM15-20PI12 & SAM18PI01) – PI L. Fañanas and the Government of Cantabria (INNVAL20/02) funded )-PI R. Ayesa. The authors have no conflict of interest in relation to the development of this study and the publication of the results.

About this news from COVID-19 and neurodevelopmental research

Author: Tom Parkhill
Source: European Psychiatric Association
Contact: Tom Parkhill – European Psychiatric Association
Picture: The image is in the public domain

Original research: The results will be out on the 30thth European Congress of Psychiatry.

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