Natalie Brito, New York University – Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Infant Gut Microbiome

On New York University Week: The COVID-19 pandemic affected everyone, even infants.

Natalie Brito, associate professor in the department of applied psychology, looks into the gut microbiome of those born during the pandemic.

Dr. Natalie Brito is an Associate Professor in the Department of Applied Psychology at NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, and PI of the Infant Studies of Language and Neurocognition (ISLAND) lab. Dr. Brito’s research explores how social and cultural contexts shape the trajectory of brain and behavioral development, with the goal of better understanding how to best support caregivers and create environments that foster healthy development. Specifically, her ongoing studies examine how both proximal factors (i.e., maternal mental health, parent-child interactions) and distal influences (i.e., social policies) impact the development of attention, memory, and socioemotional skills during the first three years of life.

Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Infant Gut Microbiome

The start of the COVID-19 pandemic radically altered our lives, from the way we interact with each other to our daily habits. Our research team wanted to know how these environmental and social disruptions were impacting the youngest members of our society. We were particularly interested in examining the gut microbiome – a complex ecosystem of bacteria that rapidly develops during the first few years of life and plays an essential role in our health and wellbeing. We compared stool samples of two socioeconomically and racially diverse groups of 12-month-olds living in New York City, with samples collected before the pandemic or after the onset of the pandemic between March and December of 2020. Given the lockdowns and reductions in social interactions that were happening at that time, we expected differences in the microbial diversity and composition of gut bacteria between these samples.

We found that infants sampled during the pandemic had lower alpha diversity, meaning there were fewer species of bacteria in the gut. There were also significant variations in microbial richness. Specific bacterial taxa, like Pasteurellaceae and Haemophilus, were less abundant in samples collected during the pandemic. We surmised that these differences were potentially due to increased use of cleaning products and decreased socialization outside of the home, including less time at daycare and playing with other kids. It is currently unclear what the implications are for these differences in infants, but we do know that in adults, lower alpha diversity has been linked to poorer physical and mental health.

It is rare to have a natural experiment like this where we can examine environmental influences on the early life gut microbiome, and our results highlight the potential broader implications of the pandemic on child health.