Study: Mother’s COVID-19 May Affect Boys’ Brain Development

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April 18, 2023 -- Boys born to mothers with COVID-19 could face brain-development issues at a rate twice that of others, a new study found.

The study involved more than 18,000 children born at eight hospitals in Massachusetts. Almost 900 of them were born to women who had COVID-19 while pregnant.

The male babies were more prone to a range of developmental disorders in the first 18 months of life, says the study, which was published in the JAMA Network Open. It analyzed electronic health records.

The issues included delays in speech and language, psychological development, motor function and intellectual abilities.

Those issues can be associated with autism among older children, but “it’s way too soon to reliably diagnose autism” in the children studied, Roy Perlis, MD, told NPR. Perlis is a co-author of the report and a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital.

"All we can hope to detect at this point are more subtle sorts of things like delays in language and speech, and delays in motor milestones,” he said. "Most children of moms who have COVID during pregnancy won't have neurodevelopmental consequences even if there is some increase in risk."

Other studies have shown that maternal infections can affect fetal brain development, especially in boys, NPR reported.

"If a mom had SARS-CoV-2 infection in pregnancy and had a male child, her 12-month-old was 94% more likely to have any neurodevelopmental diagnosis," said Andrea Edlow, MD, lead author and a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at Mass General.

The virus that causes COVID-19 usually does not infect a fetus, she said. The risk to a fetus seems to come from the mother’s immune response, not from the infection.