Sudden Infant Death Syndrome explained as study finds possible cause

A groundbreaking study may have just found a possible cause for the incredibly tragic Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

A study led by researchers at the Children’s Hospital at Westmead in Australia has identified the first biochemical marker which could help doctors work out which babies are more at risk of SIDS while they’re alive.

SIDS is the unexplained death, usually during sleep, of a seemingly healthy baby less than a year old. The latest CDC figures showed in 2019 there were about 1,250 deaths due to SIDS.

Biomarker revealed to be the key

First published on Sunday (May 8) in Lancet’s eBioMedicine, the study revealed the biomarker was an enzyme called Butyrylcholinesterase (BChE).

When they measured the BChE levels at birth – the study looked at the activity in 722 Dried Blood Spots (DBS) taken at birth as part of the Newborn Screening Program. They found that the BChE levels were significantly lower in babies who later died of SIDS when compared to the levels of babies who died of other causes, and of those living.

BChE is an enzyme which plays a huge role in the ‘brain’s arousal pathway’ and the researchers believe when babies have a deficit of this they have an ‘arousal deficit’ meaning it would hinder the infant’s ability to wake or respond which makes them vulnerable to SIDS.

Tragic motivation to ‘game changing’ discovery

The scientist who led the study, Dr Carmel Harrington, actually had a tragic motivation to get to the bottom of the mystery – she had lost her own baby to SIDS 29-years-ago.

However, in a statement, she said this discovery is ‘game changing’ and hopes one day they can make ‘SIDS a thing of the past’.

She said: “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.”

“This has long been thought to be the case, but up to now, we didn’t know what was causing the lack of arousal. 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.”

Ultimately, Dr Harrington hopes this discovery can give some kind of closure or answers to bereaved parents and families who are often left with so many questions after the loss of their baby and hopes they can now live on knowing it was ‘not their fault’.

“An apparently healthy baby going to sleep and not waking up is every parent’s nightmare, and until now there was absolutely no way of knowing which infant would succumb. But that’s not the case anymore,” she continued.

“This discovery has opened up the possibility for intervention and finally gives answers to parents who have lost their children so tragically. These families can now live with the knowledge that this was not their fault.”

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