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Covid Could Impact Babies’ Brain Development In The Womb, Study Suggests

Topline

Infants exposed to Covid-19 in the womb were more likely to be diagnosed with neurodevelopmental disorders in the first year after delivery than those who weren’t, according to a study published Thursday in JAMA Network Open, adding to a large body of research underscoring the value of vaccination during pregnancy and potentially signaling a much larger problem as children born during the pandemic grow up.

Key Facts

Neurodevelopmental disorders encompass a broad array of issues like autism, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, learning difficulties and cerebral palsy that are associated with how the brain and nervous system develop.

While many disorders are usually diagnosed much later in life, neurodevelopmental diagnoses related to problems with speech, language and motor function were “significantly more common” among the infants exposed to Covid in the womb, the researchers said.

The findings are based on a study of 7,772 children delivered in Massachusetts hospitals during the pandemic, 222 of whom had parents that tested positive while pregnant.

The link remained even after the researchers took into account other factors that could affect the rate of neurodevelopmental disorders, including race, ethnicity, insurance status, maternal age, offspring sex and preterm birth, a well-known known risk factor and something more likely among pregnant people with Covid-19.

Rates of neurodevelopmental disorders were particularly high among infants exposed during the third trimester, the researchers said, though it’s not clear why this is the case.

The researchers said their findings underscore the urgent need for more research into how Covid-19 impacts child development and to confirm the link they identified.

Key Background

The findings highlight yet another set of possible dangers posed to pregnant people and their children by the pandemic. Pregnant people infected with Covid are at much higher risk of serious disease and death, far more likely to give birth early and are more likely to experience serious complications. Infants born preterm are more likely to face short- and long-term health problems including behavioral issues and heart problems. Vaccination, while not able to eliminate all risk of infection, has been repeatedly proven as a safe way of cutting the risks from Covid-19 faced by both parent and child. Despite this, vaccine coverage among pregnant people remains low.

What We Don’t Know

The extent and nature of the link between Covid exposure in the womb and neurodevelopmental disorders. As the research is observational, it cannot establish a definitive causal link between Covid-19 and the higher rate of neurodevelopmental disorders, nor can it suggest a mechanism as to why this might be happening. While other explanations could be possible—there could still be other variables the researchers did not adequately account for—the researchers note that other maternal infections, including those caused by viruses like influenza, are consistently associated with higher rates of neurodevelopmental disorders among children exposed.

What To Watch For

Emerging issues as children grow up. This study covers children one year after birth and we are just over two years into the pandemic. As many neurodevelopmental disorders are not diagnosed or do not manifest until later on in infancy, many aren’t until adolescence or adulthood, it is difficult to fully comprehend the true scale of the problem. In a linked editorial, Dr. Torri Metz, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Utah, said the findings are “critically important, yet many questions remain.” The study has generated a number of additional questions as to how the virus affects development, Metz added, such as whether it matters when a child is exposed in the womb, what variant is involved (the study was conducted in 2020 when early variants like the original strain and alpha were circulating) and if something can be done to help mitigate the effects of the pandemic on children.

Further Reading

Covid-19 gave scientists an opening to better understand how brain disorders arise (STAT News)

Covid-19 Raises Risk Of Pregnancy Complications—Including Death Around Birth, Preterm Delivery And Postpartum Hemorrhage—Study Finds (Forbes)

How COVID-19 can harm pregnancy and reproductive health (National Geographic)

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