Infants exposed to COVID-19 in utero show differences in neurodevelopmental outcomes

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 mothers infected with COVID 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 extent 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. The researchers are presenting the data on pregnancy and postnatal assessment 6 weeks after birth, but the project will continue to see if there are any 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.

The 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. Effectively, they respond slightly differently to being held or cuddled“.

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

We must 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 to data from another similar project (the epi project) that is studying 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’re repeating the work, and we’re going to follow this up over a longer period of time and to determine 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.”

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 critical to understanding and preventing possible neurological problems and psychological vulnerabilities in these children in the years to come.”

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. They show that we need more large-scale, international research to enable us to understand the developmental impact of this health emergency and provide better quality of care for parents and infants.”

dr Provenzi was not involved in this work.


European Psychiatric Association

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