Coronavirus anxiety will influence people not even born yet

A recent study conducted by the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine has a word of advice for all the prospective fathers of the world. Try not to let the coronavirus pandemic stress you out too much, all that anxiety may just alter the composition of your sperm and cause distinct differences in the children you have yet to conceive.

As if COVID-19 hasn’t disrupted all of our lives enough already, it could influence the lives of people not even born yet. It was already clear that the repercussions of this pandemic are going to be felt for decades to come, but this is an unexpected twist.

What does the study reveal?

“Our study shows that the baby’s brain develops differently if the father experienced a chronic period of stress before conception, but we still do not know the implications of these differences,” comments corresponding study author Tracy Bale, Ph.D., Professor of Pharmacology and Director of the Center for Epigenetic Research in Child Health & Brain Development at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, in a university release.

“Could this prolonged higher level of stress raise the risk for mental health issues in future offspring, or could experiencing stress and managing it well help to promote stress resilience? We don’t really know at this point, but our data highlight why further studies are necessary,” she adds.

In the months leading up to conception, a father’s experiences with stress and anxiety have a big impact on his sperm. In turn, those sperm fluctuations lead to changes in fetal brain development in the mother’s womb. It’s a domino effect if you will, and one that modern science is only now starting to fully understand.

More specifically, lots of stress appears to change a man’s extracellular vesicles. Extracellular vesicles transport essential proteins, nucleic acids, and lipids between cells, and play a big role in the maturation of sperm.

“There are so many reasons that reducing stress is beneficial especially now when our stress levels are chronically elevated and will remain so for the next few months,” Dr. Bale comments. “Properly managing stress can not only improve mental health and other stress-related ailments, but it can also help reduce the potential lasting impact on the reproductive system that could impact future generations.”

Of course, there are a whole lot of stressors out there to get worked up about; it doesn’t necessarily have to be COVID-19. As time goes on, we are constantly uncovering more and more harmful physical effects linked to stress, and this is yet another reason why we should all do our best to keep calm no matter what life throws at us. In many cases, the harm we do to ourselves, both physically and mentally, from being stressed out is far greater than the initial situation in the first place.

To come to their conclusions, the study’s authors analyzed extracellular vesicles in a group of mice after they were given doses of the stress hormone cortisone. In this way, the research team was able to essentially create artificial stress in the mice. After they had been given the cortisol, their extracellular vesicles were distinctly different than before, in terms of size as well as protein and small RNA counts.

Then, sperm from those stressed-out mice was used to fertilize a series of eggs. The ensuing mouse babies displayed “significant changes” in their early brain development patterns. Moreover, once those mice had grown up they responded to stress quite differently than their peers.

To see if these observations applied to humans, the study’s authors gathered a group of college-aged volunteers to donate sperm once a month for six months total. Each month, volunteers also filled out a survey asking about how stressed they were feeling. Sure enough, participants who indicated that they had felt very stressed the month before exhibited changes in the small RNA count of their sperm.

It was also noted that stress-induced changes seem to take hold about a month after the stress is experienced. It seems that this post-stress state then becomes the body’s “new normal,” indicating it may be impossible to reverse the effects of stress on sperm.

“It appears the body’s adaptation to stress is to return to a new baseline,” Dr. Bale explains, “a post-stress physiological state – termed allostasis.”

Dr. Bale goes on to mention that she believes that any lifestyle habit that benefits one’s mental and physical health, such as running or maintaining a social life, is beneficial to the reproductive system as well.

“It is important to realize that social distancing does not have to mean social isolation, especially with modern technologies available to many of us,” concludes Joshua Gordon, Director of the National Institute of Mental Health in an accompanying coronavirus message. “Connecting with our friends and loved ones, whether by high tech means or through simple phone calls, can help us maintain ties during stressful days ahead and will give us strength to weather this difficult passage.”

The full study can be found here, published in Nature Communications.