Researchers at the Westmead Children’s Hospital in Sydney have made a breakthrough in Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) research. This breakthrough could help identify babies more at risk of developing SIDS. The syndrome is a mystery condition that causes infants to die in their sleep. It has been thought to be related to brain defects but until now there has been no solid leads on the cause.
The researchers studied samples from 700 babies who had died from SIDS, comparing them to infants who died of other causes. They also analyzed samples from 10 babies who survived SIDS. They discovered that children who have lower levels of activity of an enzyme called Butyrylcholinesterase are at greater risk of dying from SIDS. This enzyme is responsible for the brain’s arousal pathway. This means that if the activity is low it affects the baby’s ability to wake or respond to the environment around them.
Lead researcher, Dr Carmel Harrington, lost her own three year old son Damien to SIDS in 1991. This sudden loss set her on a determined path to find a cure. Harrington explains,
“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 are 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.”
It is hoped that this research may lead to simple tests that can measure a baby’s susceptibility to developing SIDS. In the meantime medical advice still suggests that babies avoid sleeping on their stomach to minimize the chance of SIDS. The full results of the study are published on The Lancet which was funded though crowd funding.