What we don’t know – COVID-19 and pregnancy

More research into COVID-19’s impact on pregnancies is needed, says Professor Suresh Sundram, Head of the Department of Psychiatry, after a preliminary study found genetic changes in babies whose mothers caught the infection while pregnant.

Monash University scientists emphasised the changes – seen in how genes associated with neurodevelopmental disorders express themselves – were from a small study of eight infants and their mothers, four of whom caught COVID-19 when pregnant.

The peer-reviewed results, published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity – Health, were in line with previous epidemics, where babies whose pregnant mothers caught the Spanish flu or rubella, had an increased risk of developing autism and schizophrenia.

Professor Suresh Sundram said there is no cause for panic because it could not yet be determined how genetic changes found in their study would affect the children.

He said researchers, led by  Associate Professor Rachel Hill, Head of Behavioural Neuroscience, used “cutting-edge technology to examine the DNA of eight infants and their mothers across 850,000 spots along the genome.”

“Environmental and external influences can alter the way a gene is regulated,” he said.

“We found that some of the babies … appeared to have changes in a number of genes that are involved in neurodevelopment, the development of the brain and the nervous system.”

He said the potential implications of the research – funded by a donation from charity One in Five – were critical for health systems globally but they needed a much bigger, international study to make any distinct conclusions.

“We need to get much more government funding,” he said.

“If in fact COVID-19 infection during pregnancy does increase the risk of neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism and schizophrenia, it would have significant implications for Australia’s healthcare systems. We need to be able to follow these children to determine what the likely risk is with regard to this current pandemic, and also to inform us what we need to do in future pandemics. This is important work.”

He said the changes to the genes’ expression were not caused by COVID infection directly, but by the mother’s immune response, and the study has now expanded to involve 48 babies.

About Monash University

Monash University is Australia’s largest university with more than 80,000 students. In the 60 years since its foundation, it has developed a reputation for world-leading high-impact research, quality teaching, and inspiring innovation.

With four campuses in Australia and a presence in Malaysia, China, India, Indonesia and Italy, it is one of the most internationalised Australian universities.

As a leading international medical research university with the largest medical faculty in Australia and integration with leading Australian teaching hospitals, we consistently rank in the top 50 universities worldwide for clinical, pre-clinical and health sciences.

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