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Getting COVID-19 while pregnant could cause brain development delays in boys, study finds

Boys' brain development in the womb may be delayed if the mother contracts COVID-19 while pregnant, a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Network Open finds. The research showed that boys born to people who had COVID-19 during pregnancy were twice as likely to be diagnosed with a developmental disorder in their first 18 months of life, NPR reports. Baby girls did not show the same results.

"Male fetuses are known to be more vulnerable to maternal infectious exposures during pregnancy," according to the study's lead author Andrea Edlow. However, there is only a slight increase in risk, and "most children of moms who have COVID during pregnancy won't have neurodevelopmental consequences even if there is some increase in risk," explains study co-author Roy Perlis

Importantly, this is still a developing research topic, and a study published in the same journal had a conflicting result claiming "no association was found between mild or asymptomatic maternal SARS-CoV-2 infection during pregnancy and infant cognition, language, or motor development." In order to truly assess whether there are long term-impacts, more research should be done assessing milestones across early childhood, USA Today writes.

"There is growing evidence linking prenatal maternal infection and inflammation and risk for later neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD, schizophrenia," maternal-infant health expert Catherine Limperopoulos told USA Today. This is due to the body's immune response to the infection, producing proteins to fight infections called cytokines. These proteins can cause inflammation in fetal brains. "There is a link between maternal immune activation, changes in gene expression in the brain, changes in brain development, and long-lasting changes in behaviors," remarked Kim McAllister, a professor at the University of California, Davis to NPR.

"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," Perlis said.