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Creating a Bright Future for Unborn Babies Exposed to COVID-19

Sarah Mulkey

Dr. Sarah Mulkey is a fetal-neonatal neurologist at Children’s National Hospital. She has devoted much of her career to answering a complex question: how can the study of babies’ brains help ensure their future health and well-being? “My whole love and joy is trying to make sure babies grow up as strong as they can,” she says. “If we see a problem early, perhaps we can intervene and improve lives.”

Since 2016 she has studied the impact of the Zika virus on 82 babies whose mothers tested positive. This research has timely implications during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Obviously this is a different virus,” she says. “But exposure can potentially harm a developing baby’s brain in a way that we can’t always detect, for instance, with an MRI. It’s important to follow child development closely.”

The 2020 pandemic presents a chance to follow the development of babies whose mothers were positive for COVID-19 while pregnant. The goal of the study is to identify differences in early brain development. It will also assess child neurodevelopment from birth to 2 years old and potentially throughout childhood.

“It is amazing to observe a group of children develop over time,” Dr. Mulkey says. “Right now there is no data on the neurological impact of COVID-19 on babies. We have a duty to follow these children. Unless we look for answers, we might miss them.”

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