A recent study suggests that the Covid-19 pandemic may have altered the composition of gut bacteria in infants. Developmental psychologists have found that infants who spent most of their first year during the pandemic have a reduced variety of gut bacteria compared to those born earlier.
Infants also exhibited lower levels of Pasteurellaceae and Haemophilus bacteria
The research, published in Scientific Reports, indicates that infants whose gut microbiomes were examined during the pandemic displayed lower alpha diversity, indicating a decreased number of bacterial species in their gut. These infants also exhibited lower levels of Pasteurellaceae and Haemophilus bacteria, which naturally reside in humans and can lead to various infections.
Furthermore, there were notable differences in beta diversity, revealing dissimilarities in the gut microbiomes between the two groups.
The New York University researchers behind the study suggested that these differences could be attributed to the social changes brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Infants may have spent more time at home, less time in daycare interacting with other children, experienced changes in their environment’s hygiene, alterations in diet and breastfeeding practices, and increased stress among caregivers.
Sarah C. Vogel, co-lead author of the study and a recent doctoral graduate from NYU Steinhardt’s Developmental Psychology program, highlighted that the Covid-19 pandemic offered a unique opportunity to explore how social factors impact the infant gut microbiome.
To conduct their research, the team compared stool samples from two groups of 12-month-olds living in New York City. One group consisted of infants tested before the pandemic (34 infants), while the other group was tested between March and December of 2020 (20 infants).
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While caution is necessary when speculating about the health implications of these gut microbiome differences, it’s worth noting that gut diversity has been linked to health outcomes throughout one’s life.
As Natalie Brito, an Associate Professor at NYU Steinhardt, explained, lower microbiota species diversity in the adult gut has been associated with poorer physical and mental health. However, further research is needed to understand how the early caregiving environment shapes the development of the infant gut microbiome.