Research press release


Communications Medicine

COVID-19: Small study suggests maternal psychological distress during the pandemic may be associated with altered fetal brain development

新型コロナウイルス感染症(COVID-19)パンデミック(世界的大流行)時の妊娠中の母体の自己報告に基づく心理的苦痛が、発育中の胎児の脳に生じた変調に関連している可能性があることを報告する論文が、Communications Medicine に掲載される。今回の研究には、パンデミック時(2020年6月~2021年4月)に妊娠していた女性65人と、パンデミック以前(2014年3月~2020年2月)に妊娠していた女性137人が参加した。パンデミック時に評価対象となった参加者で、COVID-19の原因ウイルスである重症急性呼吸器症候群コロナウイルス2(SARS-CoV-2)に感染した人はいなかったことが明らかになっている。今回の研究では、COVID-19感染の影響ではなく、パンデミック自体が妊婦と発育中の胎児に及ぼす潜在的影響の評価が行われた。

今回、Catherine Limperopoulosたちは、COVID-19パンデミック以前とパンデミック時に妊娠していた母親の子宮内の胎児の脳の画像を磁気共鳴画像法(MRI)で撮影して、大脳の脳回形成、脳表面のしわの寄った形状(脳回化)、しわの深さ(脳溝深さ)などの脳の表面構造を評価した。





Self-reported maternal psychological distress during the COVID-19 pandemic may be associated with changes in the brain of developing fetuses, according to a study published in Communications Medicine. The study involved 65 women who were pregnant during the pandemic (June 2020 to April 2021) and 137 who were pregnant prior to the pandemic (March 2014 to February 2020). None of the participants assessed during the course of the pandemic were known to have been infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The study assessed the potential impact of the pandemic itself on pregnant women and their developing fetuses before birth, rather than the impact of COVID-19 infections.

Catherine Limperopoulos and colleagues imaged the brains of fetuses in the wombs of mothers who were pregnant before and during the COVID-19 pandemic using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). The imaging assessed the surface structure of the brain, including cortical folding and the wrinkled shape (gyrification) and depth of the wrinkles (sulcal depth) of the brain surface.

From the 202 participants, authors asked 173 mothers questions to investigate any distress experienced during pregnancy including anxiety, stress and depression. The authors found stress and depression were reported proportionally more in the mothers who were pregnant during the pandemic. Overall, 34 (27.6%) women in the pre-pandemic cohort and 26 (52.0%) women pregnant during the pandemic were considered to have high psychological distress. Anxiety levels stayed consistent across groups.

The authors observed that three brain structure and volumetric measures (fetal white matter of the cerebrum, hippocampal, and cerebellar volumes) were decreased in the fetuses from the pandemic cohort compared to the pre-pandemic cohort. Development in these brain structures was negatively associated with anxiety, stress and depression scores. When also including mothers reporting low stress in the analysis, the authors observed fetuses of pregnant women in the low stress group had lower volumes across the three brain measures in the pandemic cohort compared to the pre-pandemic cohort. The authors suggest this variability and inconsistency indicates multiple factors are involved in fetal brain development.

When observing brain structure, the authors found cortical surface area and local gyrification index were decreased in all four lobes, while sulcal depth was lower in the left frontal, parietal, and occipital lobes in the pandemic cohort. The authors suggest these metrics may indicate delayed brain gyrification.

The authors caution that the differences when comparing multiple findings suggest that there are many factors that influence brain development, not just elevated maternal stress. The authors discuss the potential influence of parental education in 197 of the mothers, amongst other factors, that are associated with brain development. The variability of data suggests there are periods of plasticity that could allow for interventions for mother and child. The authors did not investigate the long-term impact of the potential changes shown in this study and they suggest future research could investigate this further.

doi: 10.1038/s43856-022-00111-w


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