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Researchers pinpoint reason for Sudden Infant Deaths

Published on 16/05/22 at 09:17am

Scientists from The Children's Hospital Westmead in Sydney have discovered that babies who died of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) have lower levels of an enzyme known as Butyrylcholinesterase (BChE), a key enzyme in the brain’s arousal pathway. SIDS accounts for around 37% of sudden unexpected infant deaths every year in the US.

The news marks the study as the first to identify a biochemical marker in the blood that is linked to the risk of SIDS.

SIDS, also known as cot death, refers to the unexplained deaths of apparently healthy infants under a year old. The deaths do not have an identified cause, even under complete investigation – including performing a complete autopsy, examining the death scene, and reviewing the clinical history. Generally cot death occurs while the child is sleeping.

Many in the medical community suspected this SIDS to be caused by a defect in the part of the brain that controls arousal from sleep and breathing, and that if the infant stopped breathing during sleep, the defect would keep the child from startling or waking up. 

The enzyme BChE plays a major role in the brain’s arousal pathway, explaining why SIDS typically occurs during sleep.

Dr Carmel Harrington was the lead researcher for the study. Her son, Damien, died as an infant nearly 30 years ago, a death which was attributed to SIDS. In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), Harrington shared the experience: “They just said it’s a tragedy. But it was a tragedy that didn't sit well with my scientific brain.” Harrington emphasised the importance of the study for families who have suffered a SIDS loss: “These families can now live with the knowledge that this was not their fault.”

“This is a very important observation,” said Prof Peter Fleming, of the University of Bristol, whose work is credited with preventing tens of thousands of UK baby deaths after the Back to Sleep campaign launched in the 1990s. “If this is telling us something new about the mechanism, then that’s very important.”

“Up to now we didn’t know what was causing the lack of arousal,” said Harrington. “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.”

The discovery of a SIDS biomarker opens the possibility of research into specific interventions for cot deaths.

Ana Ovey

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