Neurodevelopmental Changes Found in Babies Exposed to COVID in the Womb

A preliminary study presented at the 30th European Congress of Psychiatry found that kids born to mothers who had COVID-19 during pregnancy had distinct neurodevelopmental outcomes at 6 weeks.

“Not all babies born to mothers infected with COVID show neurodevelopmental differences, but our data shows that their risk is increased in comparison to those not exposed to COVID in the womb. We need a bigger study to confirm the exact extent of the difference,” stated Project Leader Dr. Rosa Ayesa Arriola.

When compared to newborns born to non-infected moms, researchers discovered that infants born to infected mothers have more difficulty relaxing and adjusting their body when handled. This is especially true if the SARS-CoV-2 infection occurred during late pregnancy. Furthermore, infants delivered to moms who have COVID-19 have a harder time managing their head and shoulders. These changes point to a putative COVID influence on motor function (movement control).

The findings are based on an early review of the Spanish COGESTCOV-19 experiment, which tracked the course of pregnancy and newborn growth in COVID-19-infected women. The results on pregnancy and post-natal evaluation will be presented by the researchers at 6 weeks following birth, but the investigation will continue to investigate whether there are any long-term consequences. The study will look at newborn language and motor development between the ages of 18 and 42 months.

The findings are based on an early review of the Spanish COGESTCOV-19 experiment, which studied the course of pregnancy and newborn growth in COVID-19-infected women. The researchers will submit the results on pregnancy and post-natal evaluation at 6 weeks following delivery, but the investigation will continue to investigate whether there are any long-term consequences. Between the ages of 18 and 42 months, the group will track newborn language and motor development.

The Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale (NBAS), which analyzes the baby's movement and behavior, was among the post-natal exams.

Ms. Gueda Castro Quintas, a researcher at the University of Barcelona's Network Center for Biomedical Research in Mental Health, stated: “We found that certain elements of the NBAS measurement were changed in 6-week-old infants who had been exposed to the SARS-COV-2 virus. Effectively they react slightly differently to being held, or cuddled.”

We have been very cautious in how we have carried out these testing. Clinicians having professional experience in the field and in the tests thoroughly evaluated each mother and infant.

It should be noted that these are preliminary findings, but they are part of a bigger experiment including 100 moms and their newborns. They were also observed during pregnancy and after delivery. We also intend to compare these moms and newborns to data from a comparable initiative (the epi-project), which investigates the impact of stress and heredity on a child's neurodevelopment.

Águeda Castro Quintas continued: “This is an ongoing project, and we are at an early stage. We found that babies whose mothers had been exposed to COVID did show neurological effects at 6 weeks, but we don’t know if these effects will result in any longer-term issues, longer term observation may help us understand this.”

Co-researcher Nerea San Martín González, added: “Of course, in babies who are so young, there are several things we just can’t measure, such as language skills or cognition. We also need to be aware that this is a comparatively small sample, so we are repeating the work, and we will follow this up over a longer period. We need a bigger sample to determine the role of infection on offspring’s neurodevelopmental alterations and the contribution of other environmental factors In the meantime, we need to stress the importance of medical monitoring to facilitate a healthy pregnancy, discussing any concerns with your doctor wherever necessary.”

“This is the right moment to establish international collaborations that would permit us to assess long-term neurodevelopment in children born during the COVID-19 pandemic. Research in this field is vital in understanding and preventing possible neurological problems and mental health vulnerabilities in those children in the coming years,” according to Project Leader Dr. Rosa Ayesa Arriola.

Dr. Livio Provenzi (University of Pavia, Italy) said independently: “There is a great need to study both direct and indirect effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the health and well-being of parents and infants. Pregnancy is a period of life which shapes much of our subsequent development, and exposure to adversity in pregnancy can leave long-lasting biological footprints. These findings from Dr. Rosa Ayesa Arriola’s group reinforce evidence of epigenetic alterations in infants born from mothers exposed to pandemic-related stress during pregnancy. It shows we need more large-scale, international research to allow us to understand the developmental effects of this health emergency, and to deliver better quality of care to parents and infants.”

The epi-project is a collaborative effort between the Hospital Clnic of Barcelona and the Hospital Universitario Central de Asturias. It investigates the influence of genetics and stress on the outcome of a newborn. Prof. Dr. Lourdes Faanás is in charge.

The Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness, Instituto de Salud Carlos III, through the University of Barcelona multicenter project - Intramural Grants (SAM15-20PI12 & SAM18PI01)-PI L. Faanas and the Government of Cantabria (INNVAL20/02)-PI R. Ayesa, financed this research. The authors have no competing interests in the preparation of this study or the publishing of the findings.