A COVID-19 infection during pregnancy could increase the risk of neurodevelopmental delays in baby boys. According to the study, which was published in the JAMA Network Open Journal, they’re nearly twice as likely to be diagnosed with delays in brain development, compared to other boys.
That’s the conclusion that they reached after studying more than 18,000 babies born at eight different hospitals across Massachusetts, 900 of which were born to mothers who had an active COVID-19 infection during their pregnancy.
Out of them, many were diagnosed with various developmental disorders, such as delays in motor function, speech and language, and psychological development, in the first 18 months of life. Not only that but some also presented with intellectual disabilities.
According to Dr. Roy Perlis, who co-authored the study, these intellectual differences are often associated with an autism spectrum disorder in older children. Those who were included in the recent study, however, are too young to be reliably diagnosed.
Nevertheless, the findings suggest the idea that maternal infections, such as COVID-19, can alter the brain development of a fetus, especially in males. In the past, scientists have also identified links between cytomegalovirus and influenza and disorders such as schizophrenia and autism.
The lead author of the study, Dr. Andrea Eldow, who works as a maternal-fetal medicine specialist, says that male fetuses are especially vulnerable to maternal infectious during pregnancy. Fortunately, however, the effect of COVID appears to be modest.
The Reason Behind the Study
Dr. Eldow and Dr. Perlis, both of whom work at Harvard Medical School, saw an opportunity for a study with the arrival of COVID-19. Even before the pandemic, they had been looking for ways to study how different factors, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and infections, may affect fetal brain development.
Their team eventually began to compare the offspring born to uninfected and infected mothers. After getting a large enough group, they examined the data and found the sex differences that they were looking for. More specifically, male offspring born to mothers with COVID-19 were 94 percent more likely to receive a neurodevelopmental diagnosis.
It’s important to note, however, that viruses like COVID-19 rarely infect a fetus. Rather, it’s the mother’s immune response to the illness that increases fetal risk. More specifically, it’s the cytokines- immune system mediators- which are produced by the body during infection, that cross the placenta and affect the fetal brain. More specifically, it can change the gene expression in the developing brain. Inflammation caused by cytokines is also greater in male fetuses, which explains the developmental abnormalities following birth.
For now, their team will continue to assess the children for several more years. This will let the researchers determine whether or not the present delays in males will persist or lead to an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis.
Perlis and her team hope that the effects are temporary and will eventually go away.