A growing body of evidence shows that maternal stress during pregnancy and the perinatal period can have lasting effects on child neurobehavioral development and health. Psychiatrists from NYU Langone Health recently launched a groundbreaking effort to measure the impact of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic on new mothers—and, ultimately, on their offspring.
The COPE Study
The Coronavirus-19 and Perinatal Experience (COPE) Study is led by Moriah E. Thomason, PhD, the Barakett Associate Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, associate professor in the Department of Population Health, and a nationally recognized pioneer in measuring the effects of environmental programming on the developing brain. The goal of the study is to assess the experiences and feelings of pregnant and new mothers during the pandemic and to trace the effects of maternal stressors on children’s neural circuitry, cognition, behaviors, and emotional wellbeing.
“We’re looking at four main parameters,” Dr. Thomason explains. “First, we want to quantify the economic, social, and medical impacts that these women are experiencing. Second, we want to understand the effect of those experiences on the mothers’ mental health. Third, we want to see how the mothers’ experiences and responses shape the development of their kids. And finally, we want to know how the health disparities in our society—particularly in low-resource communities of color—affect all of these outcomes.”
For the first phase of the COPE Study, Dr. Thomason and her colleagues recruited a multiracial cohort of more than 800 expectant or new mothers in the New York City area. To perform a baseline assessment, the team used a survey developed collaboratively with more than 100 expert scientists and clinicians to provide a detailed portrait of each participant’s pandemic-related experiences and responses.
Early Data on Stress and Coping
Initial data, collected between March 30 and June 15—during the peak of COVID-19 cases in New York City—suggests that the crisis has significantly affected the women’s lives. Of the pregnant participants, 75 percent reported changes to prenatal care; of those who had recently given birth, 90 percent reported changes to postnatal care. Overall, 78 percent of the mothers reported an increase in stress; the principal sources were financial issues (31 percent), health issues (21 percent), impact on their community (19 percent), access to mental healthcare (17 percent), and impact on friends (12 percent). Seventy-five percent reported that what they missed most was in-person contact.
Yet there were positive changes as well. Nearly 70 percent of the mothers reported better appreciation of life. Many found self-care—including meditation, bathing, and getting a good night’s sleep—to be helpful in coping with pandemic-related stresses.
Future Directions for Research
In the coming months and years, Dr. Thomason and her team will continue to follow the original cohort, observing how the pandemic’s impacts evolve in both mothers and children over time. To track stress-related physiological changes, the researchers plan to collect biosamples: breast milk from mothers; and blood, stool, saliva, hair, and nail cuttings from all participants. For the children, such analyses will be correlated with assessments of behavior and mental health and with imaging to measure changes in brain structure and function.
Eventually the investigation’s scope may range far beyond New York. Alongside the COPE Study, Dr. Thomason and her lab launched the COVGEN Research Alliance, which aims to support research on the “COVID generation” and their families around the world. The team is sharing survey tools (translated into multiple languages) through the alliance’s website, which will provide a platform for this and other international collaborations going forward.
The purpose of such research, Dr. Thomason emphasizes, is to provide data not only to healthcare providers and policymakers, but to the communities being studied, helping to identify families’ needs and improve outcomes. Such knowledge, she adds, can empower those affected by the pandemic to make the best of its challenges.
“Humans are a highly adaptive organism,” Dr. Thomason notes. “In the future, due to climate change and other factors, crises like this are likely to become more common. Kids growing up in the time of COVID-19 might actually prove to be better prepared for that tomorrow.”