Researchers at The Children’s Hospital Westmead, Sydney, Australia, say they have discovered the cause of sudden infant death syndrome.
According to Mayo Clinic – a medical center focused on integrated health care, education, and research – sudden infant death syndrome is the unexplained death, usually during sleep, of a seemingly healthy baby less than a year old. SIDS is sometimes known as crib death because the infants often die in their cribs.
In the study titled, ‘Butyrylcholinesterase is a potential biomarker for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome’ published in Science Direct, the researchers examined a theory that suggests that SIDS could be caused by a defect in the part of the brain that controls arousal from sleep and breathing.
The researchers led by Dr. Carmel Harrington said they were able to confirm this theory by analysing dried blood samples taken from newborns who died from SIDS and other unknown causes.
Harrington said, “Each SIDS sample was then compared with blood taken from healthy babies. We found the activity of the enzyme butyrylcholinesterase (BChE) was significantly lower in babies who died of SIDS compared to living infants and other non-SIDS infants deaths.
“BChE plays a major role in the brain’s arousal pathway, explaining why SIDS typically occurs during sleep.
“Previously, parents were told SIDS could be prevented if they took proper precautions: laying babies on their backs, not letting them overheat and keeping all toys and blankets out of the crib were a few of the most important preventative steps.
“While safe sleep practices are still important for protecting infants, many children whose parents took every precaution still died from SIDS.
“These parents were left with immense guilt, wondering if they could have prevented their baby’s death.”
Speaking with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Harrington, who also lost her son 29 years ago to SIDS, said when she inquired about the cause of the death of her otherwise perfectly healthy baby, no one had an answer.
“Nobody could tell me. They just said it’s a tragedy. But it was a tragedy that didn’t sit well with my scientific brain,” she said.
Speaking on the research, she said that babies have a very powerful mechanism to let us know when they are not happy.
“Usually, if a baby is confronted with a life-threatening situation, such as difficulty breathing during sleep because they’re on their tummies, they will arouse and cry out.
“What this research shows is that some babies don’t have this same robust arousal response.
“Now that we know that BChE is involved, we can begin to change the outcome for these babies and make SIDS a thing of the past.”
She further explained that this discovery is important to parents who have lost a child to SIDS, stating that, “these families can now live with the knowledge that this was not their fault.”
As the cause is now known, the researchers hope attention will now be turned to finding a solution focused on developing a screening test to identify babies who are at risk for SIDS and hopefully prevent it altogether.
The researchers say this finding has created the possibility for the identification of infants at risk of SIDS and will open new avenues for future research into developing interventions.