New York: A group of developmental psychologists has found that infants who spent most of their first year during the Covid-19 pandemic have a reduced variety of gut bacteria compared to infants born before the pandemic. Their research, published in Scientific Reports, revealed that infants whose gut microbes were examined during the pandemic exhibited lower alpha diversity in their gut microbiome, indicating a decreased number of bacterial species in their intestines.
These infants had a diminished presence of Pasteurellaceae and Haemophilus, which are bacteria naturally found in humans and can potentially lead to various infections. Additionally, the study identified significant differences in beta diversity, which measures the similarity or dissimilarity of the gut microbiome between the two groups.
The researchers from New York University suggested in their study that these differences may have been influenced by the social changes brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic. Infants may have experienced more time at home, reduced interaction with other children in daycare, heightened environmental hygiene, alterations in diet and breastfeeding practices, and increased stress among caregivers.
Sarah C. Vogel, one of the co-lead authors of the article and a recent doctoral graduate from NYU Steinhardt’s Developmental Psychology program, commented, “The Covid-19 pandemic provides a rare natural experiment to help us better understand how the social environment shapes the infant gut microbiome, and this study contributes to a growing field of research about how changes to an infant’s social environment might be associated with changes to the gut microbiome.”
For their research, the team compared stool samples from two diverse groups of 12-month-old infants residing in New York City. One group provided samples before the pandemic (34 infants), while the other provided samples between March and December of 2020 (20 infants).
While caution is necessary when speculating on the health implications of differences in the gut microbiome, it’s worth noting that gut diversity has been linked to health outcomes throughout a person’s life. Natalie Brito, an Associate Professor at NYU Steinhardt, stated, “In adults we know that lower diversity of the microbiota species in the gut has been linked to poorer physical and mental health. But more research is needed on the development of the gut microbiome during infancy and how the early caregiving environment can shape those connections.”