Contracting COVID-19 during pregnancy does not harm a baby’s brain

CHICAGO, Ill. — Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is how much scientists still don’t know or fully understand about SARS-CoV-2. New research, however, is offering up at least some clarity regarding COVID-19 and pregnancy. Scientists report that mild or moderate COVID-19 infections among pregnant women appear to have no effect whatsoever on their baby’s brain.

Still, there are a number of lingering questions on this topic. For instance, the likelihood of a pregnant woman passing on COVID to their unborn child remains unclear.

“Women infected with SARS-CoV-2 during pregnancy are concerned that the virus may affect the development of their unborn child, as is the case with some other viral infections,” says senior study author Sophia Stöcklein, M.D., from the Department of Radiology at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, in a media release.

“So far, although there are a few reports of vertical transmission to the fetus, the exact risk and impact remain largely unclear. The aim of our study was to fill this gap in knowledge regarding the impact of a maternal SARS-CoV-2 infection on fetal brain development.”

COVID does not alter a fetus’ brain development

Researchers performed 33 fetal MRIs on pregnant women infected with COVID-19 during this study. On average, all of the women were about 28 weeks into their pregnancies and had started noticing COVID-19 symptoms roughly 10 weeks earlier. The most common symptoms included a loss of taste or smell, fever, dry cough, and shortness of breath.

baby scan covid
MRI of fetal brain development. (CREDIT: RSNA and Sophia Stöcklein, M.D.)

After that, a pair of board-certified radiologists with several years of experience with fetal MRIs carefully examined the scans. Those analyses revealed absolutely no signs of brain trouble. They also deemed all of the fetuses’ brains “age-appropriate” for that point in their development.

“In our study, there was no evidence that a maternal SARS-CoV-2 infection has any effect on the brain development of the unborn child,” Dr. Stöcklein notes. “This fact should help to reassure affected parents.”

Study authors note that this work did not include severe COVID-19 cases requiring hospitalization.

“Since the impact of severe infection on brain development in the fetus has not been conclusively determined, active protection against SARS-CoV-2 infection during pregnancy remains important,” Stöcklein comments.

While these findings may be reassuring for many mothers-to-be, study authors still suggest that pregnant women opt to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

“So far, vaccination is the most promising protection against COVID-19,” Dr. Stöcklein concludes. “Any potential side effects are manageable, even in pregnant women. Therefore, despite the encouraging results of our study, pregnant women should strongly consider vaccination.”

Researchers presented their findings at the 107th Scientific Assembly and Annual Meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.

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