Coronavirus infection during pregnancy linked to brain development problems in babies

Babies whose mothers contracted the coronavirus during pregnancy may be at higher risk of developing brain disorders like autism and bipolar disorder, a new study looking at more than 7,500 births suggests.

The finding, published Thursday in JAMA Network Open magazine, adds to the urgency of bringing coronavirus transmission under control, even though newer variants are less likely to cause severe cases of COVID-19.

Other viruses such as influenza and measles are believed to make babies more susceptible to diseases such as autism, schizophrenia and depression when exposed in utero. Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School wondered if the same could apply to SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

“There are more than a decade of studies suggesting that viral infection during pregnancy could be associated with neurodevelopmental disorders, so there was reason to be concerned about this virus as well,” said Dr. Roy Perlis, director of the Center for Quantitative Health at Massachusetts General Hospital and senior author of the study.

The researchers examined electronic health record data from births that took place at eight Massachusetts medical centers between March and September 2020 during the early months of the pandemic. The records tracked the babies’ development a year after birth, looking for specific codes that would indicate a diagnosis of a developmental disorder affecting motor skills, speech or language, among others.

The researchers found that of 7,550 babies whose mothers were infection-free during their pregnancy, 3% were diagnosed with a brain development disorder before their first birthday. Of the 222 babies exposed to SARS-CoV-2 in utero, 6.3% were diagnosed by the age of 1.

After the researchers accounted for other factors that might affect a child’s risk of a neurodevelopmental problem — such as preterm birth, maternal age, and baby sex — they calculated that babies with prenatal exposure to SARS-CoV-2 were 86 % more likely to be affected in the first year of life compared to babies who were not exposed before birth.

Perlis stressed that the overall risk of developing these disorders remains low for all babies.

He added that one year is not enough to fully understand how prenatal exposure to coronavirus affects children. Still, he said, he was surprised to find any connection at all.

“Honestly, I would have been a lot happier if we hadn’t seen anything at all,” he said.

In a comment accompanying the study, Dr. Torri Metz suggests that the coronavirus may not be directly responsible for the babies’ developmental problems.

“We wonder if it is the virus itself or the societal changes and stresses of the pandemic that are negatively impacting childhood outcomes,” wrote Metz, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at the University of Utah Health.

But dr Kristina Adams Waldorf, an obstetrician-gynecologist who studies infectious diseases in pregnancy at the University of Washington Medicine, said the findings are similar to research looking at infections caused by other viruses.

“We know from previous studies, including one involving millions of pregnancies in Sweden, that exposure to different types of infections, such as influenza, during pregnancy can impair the child’s neurodevelopment,” said Adams Waldorf, who was not involved in the new study .

With coronavirus, more research is needed to determine whether the severity of a mother’s infection matters.

“Unfortunately, it’s very possible that asymptomatic or mild infections are also associated with neurodevelopmental disorders in the child,” she said.

Regardless, medical advice for pregnant women remains unchanged.

“This should be another wake-up call for pregnant women to get vaccinated and fortified, stay masked and take as many precautions as possible,” Adams Waldorf said. Coronavirus infection during pregnancy linked to brain development problems in babies

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