Summary: Depression, stress, and anxiety in pregnant women that have occurred as a result of the COVID-29 pandemic may impact fetal brain development.
According to a study published in Communication Medicine.
The study involved 65 pregnant women during the pandemic (June 2020 to April 2021) and 137 pregnant women before the pandemic (March 2014 to February 2020). None of the participants evaluated during the pandemic were known to have been infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
The study assessed the potential impact of the pandemic itself on pregnant women and their developing fetuses before birth, rather than the impact of COVID-19 infections.
Catherine Limperopoulos and her colleagues imaged the brains of fetuses in the wombs of pregnant mothers before and during the COVID-19 pandemic using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Imaging assessed brain surface structure, including cortical folding and wrinkle shape (gyrification) and wrinkle depth (sulcal depth) of the brain surface.
Of the 202 participants, the authors asked 173 mothers questions to investigate any distress experienced during pregnancy, including anxiety, stress and depression.
The authors found that stress and depression were reported proportionally more in mothers who were pregnant during the pandemic. Overall, 34 (27.6%) women in the pre-pandemic cohort and 26 (52.0%) pregnant women during the pandemic were considered to have high psychological distress. Anxiety levels remained constant across all groups.
The authors observed that three brain structures and volumetric measures (white matter volumes of the brain, hippocampus and cerebellum) were decreased in fetuses from the pandemic cohort compared to the prepandemic cohort.
The development of these brain structures was negatively associated with anxiety, stress and depression scores.
By also including mothers reporting low stress in the analysis, the authors observed that fetuses from pregnant women in the low stress group had lower volumes in all three brain measures in the pandemic cohort compared to the pre-pandemic cohort. .
The authors suggest that this variability and inconsistency indicate that several factors are involved in fetal brain development.
When observing brain structure, the authors found that cortical surface area and local gyrification index were decreased in all four lobes, while sulci depth was lower in the left frontal, parietal, and occipital lobes. of the pandemic cohort. The authors suggest that these measurements may indicate delayed cerebral gyrification.
The authors caution that the differences when comparing multiple outcomes suggest that there are many factors that influence brain development, not just high maternal stress.
The authors discuss the potential influence of parental upbringing in 197 of the mothers, among other factors, which are associated with brain development.
The variability of the data suggests that there are periods of plasticity that could allow interventions for mother and child.
The authors did not study the long-term impact of the potential changes presented in this study and they suggest that future research could investigate this question further.
About this news about depression research and brain development
Original research: Free access.
“Maternal psychological distress during the COVID-19 pandemic and structural changes in the human fetal brain” by Yuan-Chiao Lu et al. Communication Medicine
Maternal psychological distress during the COVID-19 pandemic and structural changes in the human fetal brain
High maternal psychological distress during pregnancy is linked to adverse outcomes in offspring. The potential effects of heightened levels of maternal distress during the COVID-19 pandemic on the developing fetal brain are currently unknown.
We prospectively recruited 202 pregnant women: 65 with no known exposure to COVID-19 during the pandemic who underwent 92 fetal MRIs and 137 pre-pandemic controls who underwent 182 MRIs. Multi-plane, multi-phase fast spin-echo T2-weighted images were acquired on a GE 1.5 T MRI scanner. The volumes of six types of brain tissue were calculated. Measures of cortical folding, including brain area, local gyrification index, and depth of sulci were determined. At each MRI, maternal distress was assessed using validated stress, anxiety, and depression scales. Generalized estimating equations were used to compare measures of maternal distress, brain volume, and cortical folding differences between pandemic and pre-pandemic cohorts.
Stress and depression scores are significantly higher in the pandemic cohort, compared to the pre-pandemic cohort. Fetal, hippocampal and cerebellar white matter volumes are decreased in the pandemic cohort. Cortical area and local gyrification index are also decreased in all four lobes, while sulci depth is lower in frontal, parietal, and occipital lobes in the pandemic cohort, indicating delayed cerebral gyrification.
We report impaired fetal brain growth and delayed cerebral cortical gyrification in pregnancies in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic, in the setting of increased maternal psychological distress. The potential long-term neurodevelopmental consequences of impaired fetal brain development in COVID-era pregnancies merit further study.
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