While the Covid-19 pandemic put many human research studies on hold, neuroscientist Grainne McAlonan of Kings College London saw it as a fortuitous opportunity — a chance to accelerate her search for early signs of neurodevelopmental disorders in fetuses and newborns.
McAlonan knew that if a mother is infected by a virus during pregnancy, her child has a slightly greater chance of developing such disorders, including autism, although the overall risk is very low. The novel coronavirus gave her a way to study how viral infection and the immune response affect the developing brain, and why a small number of infants are susceptible to neurological changes while the vast majority are not. By imaging the brains of babies who were exposed to Covid-19 while in utero, McAlonan plans to compare their development patterns and perhaps find similarities and additional risk factors among the infants who later develop mental disorders.
“It’s a strange study to do because you wish you weren’t in a situation where it’s important to do it,” McAlonan said. “But it’s a natural experiment we should be looking at.”
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