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Is COVID-19 Harmful to the Baby's Brain During Pregnancy?

According to a study presented today (November 30, 2021) at the Radiological Society of North America's annual meeting, COVID-19 infection of mild to moderate severity in pregnant women appears to have no effect on the developing fetus's brain (RSNA).

The SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 has been linked to increased susceptibility in pregnant women, according to research conducted two years after the pandemic began. In contrast to this, very little is known about the potential consequences of infection on an unborn child when it occurs during pregnancy. We still don't know whether vertical transmission, or virus transmission from mother to child, is possible or what the consequences are.

"Women who are infected with SARS-CoV-2 during pregnancy are concerned that the virus will impair the development of their unborn child, as has been observed with some other viral infections," said study senior author Sophia Stöcklein, M.D., of the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich's Department of Radiology in Germany. "This is the first study to demonstrate that SARS-CoV-2 can impair the development of an unborn child." "There have been a few reports of vertical transmission to the fetus, but at this point, the exact risk and impact on the fetus are still unclear. Our study aimed to fill in the gaps in our understanding of the effects of maternal SARS-CoV-2 infection on fetal brain development by investigating this issue."

With the help of fetal magnetic resonance imaging, Dr. Stöcklein and colleagues investigated 33 patients who had COVID-19 infection during pregnancy. The patients were on average 28 weeks into their pregnancies, with symptom onset occurring at slightly more than 18 weeks on average. A dry cough, a fever, and shortness of breath were the most frequently reported maternal symptoms, followed by loss or impairment of smell and taste.

A panel of two board-certified radiologists with extensive experience in fetal magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) reviewed the scans. They discovered that the brain development of all fetuses in the evaluated areas was consistent with their age. In this study, no findings were found that were consistent with fetal brain infection.

As Dr. Stöcklein explained, "Our study found no evidence that maternal SARS-CoV-2 infection has any effect on the brain development of the unborn child." "This fact should provide some comfort to worried parents."

Dr. Stöcklein cautioned that the study only included mothers who experienced mild to moderate symptoms and were not admitted to the hospital.

As she explained, "Because the effect of severe infection on fetus brain development has not been proven conclusively, active protection against SARS-CoV-2 infection during pregnancy continues to be critical."

Preventive vaccination is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for everyone aged 12 and older, including pregnant women and those who are considering becoming pregnant. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the vaccine can provide protection against serious illness.

"At this time, vaccination is the most effective means of protecting against COVID-19," Dr. Stöcklein explained. "Even in the case of pregnant women, any potential side effects are easily manageable. As a result, despite the positive findings of our study, pregnant women should strongly consider getting vaccinated against the virus."

The patients will be followed by the researchers for a period of five years, during which time they will conduct detailed neonatal assessments as well as neurological development assessments.

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