COVID-19 infection during pregnancy linked to neurological problems in newborn

There are locked-in babies conceived, pregnant and born entirely as the world battled the COVID-19 pandemic who are now over a year old. This means we are getting to the point where we can answer a question that many people are concerned about: what effect, if any, does COVID-19 have on developing fetuses?

A preliminary analysis of 212 pregnancies in facilities across Spain revealed worrying results. “We found that some elements of the NBAS [Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale] the measure was changed in six-week-old infants who had been exposed to the SARS-COV-2 virus,” researcher Águeda Castro Quintas, who is due to present the results to the European Congress of Psychiatry on Tuesday, said in a statement.

“Yes, they react slightly differently when held or cuddled,” she explained.

There’s not much (besides pooping, crying, and sleeping) that we tend to expect from six-week-old babies, but this early stage of life is an important period of growth and development for new ones. humans. Your standard baby can probably smile at this age — out of happiness, not because he needs to cry — and can recognize his caregivers’ voices among a crowd.

However, another area that is quietly worked on during these first few weeks is motor function, which is the control of movement. It might not look impressive from an adult’s perspective, but grabbing a rattle and shaking it (and not dropping it!) is a huge achievement when you’re under two months old. The same goes for lifting and moving the head and shoulders – but that’s another area that seems to be targeted by maternal COVID-19 infection.

“Each mother and baby was closely examined by clinicians with expert training in the field and in testing,” Castro Quintas said. “We found that babies whose mothers had been exposed to COVID showed neurological effects at 6 weeks, but we don’t know if these effects will lead to longer-term problems.”

Of course, with such a small sample and only the first six weeks measured, the team cautions against drawing too strong a conclusion from the results. “Not all babies born to COVID-infected mothers show neurodevelopmental differences,” said project lead researcher Rosa Ayesa Arriola.

“But our data shows that their risk is increased compared to those who are not exposed to COVID in the womb,” she explained. “We need a larger study to confirm the exact extent of the difference.”

This is not the first study to suggest that COVID-19 infection during pregnancy can have adverse effects on offspring. The findings are “consistent with similar research from Mexico published in PlosONE in May 2022… [and] a Chinese study published in Frontiers in Paediatrics in December 2021,” Mariya Hristova, senior researcher at the Institute for Women’s Health, UCL, who was not involved in the study, told IFLScience.

Both studies point to a link between COVID-19 infection during pregnancy and adverse neurodevelopmental effects, Hristova said, with babies showing “lower levels of communication, gross movement, fine movement, resolution personal and social issues and areas… [and] an increased risk of developing neurological disorders.

Add these to the ‘devastating’ risks previously uncovered by researchers studying the impacts of COVID-19 infection during pregnancy, such as low birth weight and stillbirth, and it looks like it could have consequences. quite serious. This actually raises other questions, since “[unlike] other viruses… SARS-CoV-2 does not cross the placenta,” Hristova told IFLScience.

There are many other viruses, such as Zika or cytomegalovirus, which can cause neurological problems in newborns if contracted during pregnancy. However, these viruses have such a profound effect on fetal development because they can cross not only the placenta but also the blood-brain barrier, Hristova explained, which means they can directly affect infant brain development. .

COVID-19 is different – it can’t do that. Yet we have several studies showing that COVID-19 infection during pregnancy has some effect on the brain development of babies. So what gives?

“The mechanism behind the effect of maternal SARS-CoV-2 infection on neonatal brain development is unclear… [but it] could be due to the cytokine surge reported in SARS-CoV-2 patients,” Hristova told IFLScience. She refers to one of the darkest and ironic side effects of COVID-19: the tendency for some people’s bodies to massively overreact to infection, causing hyper-inflammation and potentially autoimmune conditions. long-term.

“Although [the cytokine surge is] triggered in infected pregnant women without direct provocation of the fetus, [it] causes an immune response in the fetus and makes it more susceptible to challenges, which can impose a risk to neurological development,” Hristova explained.

“A similar mechanism underlies the detrimental effect of maternal intrauterine infection on infant neurodevelopment,” she told IFLScience. “The fetal brain, although not directly affected by the infection, becomes very sensitive to low oxygen conditions and subsequently to brain damage.”

Whatever the reason for the effect, the team behind the new results are clear that more research is needed – not just to bolster sample numbers, but to understand the longer-term consequences. term on neonatal development.

“Now is the right time to establish international collaborations that would allow us to assess long-term neurodevelopment in children born during the COVID-19 pandemic,” added Ayesa Arriola. “Research in this area is essential to understand and prevent possible neurological problems and mental health vulnerabilities in these children in the years to come.”

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