A groundbreaking new study has identified what researchers believe to be the reason babies die of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
Researchers at the Children’s Hospital at Westmead in Sydney, Australia, found that a lower level of a certain enzyme, called butyrylcholinesterase (BChE)it may explain the malfunction that causes some babies to not startle or wake up if they stop breathing while sleeping.
The study is published in the latest volume of The Lancet’s eBioMedicine, the next issue june 2022.
For years, medical experts have suspected that SIDS is caused by a defect in the part of the brain that controls sleep arousal and breathingaccording to the Mayo Clinic. They theorized that if a baby stopped breathing while sleeping, the defect would prevent the child from waking up.
The Sydney researchers confirmed the theory by analysis of dried blood samples of 722 babies taken during newborn heel prick testing: 655 of the tests were from healthy babies, 26 were from babies who died of SIDS, and 41 were from babies who died of other causes in infancy.
They found that Babies with SIDS had lower levels of BChEan enzyme that is known for its abilities in the brain’s arousal system.
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Until now we didn’t know what it was. causing lack of arousal,” dr Carmel Harrington, who led the project and lost her own son to SIDS 29 years ago, told The Guardian.
“A seemingly healthy baby who falls asleep and doesn’t wake up is every parent’s nightmare and until now there was absolutely no way of knowing which baby would succumb.”
According to Statistics Canada data from 2015 to 2020, approximately 1,700 infants under the age of one died in Canada each year. On average, one in 15 of those deaths it happened while the baby was sleeping.
The agency says that while several of those deaths were from natural causes, 83 percent occurred in a sudden and unexpected way in otherwise healthy babies.
The Public Health Agency of Canada, in association with other Canadian health organizations, recommends a series of safe sleeping practicesincluded:
- Put babies to sleep on their backs, in their own crib or bassinet.
- Prevent exposure to tobacco smoke before and after birth.
- Avoid bed sharing.
- Avoid overheating.
- Remove toys and soft bedding from sleeping surfaces.
Harrington told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that he became interested in researching SIDS after doctors unable to explain the death of his son.
“No one could tell me. They just said it’s a tragedy. But it was a tragedy that it didn’t sit well with my scientific brain.”
Now that his team has identified a cause, he said other families “can now live knowing that this was not his fault.”
The study says that researchers will now turn their attention to having the biomarker BChE added to newborn screening and “develop targeted interventions to address enzyme deficiency.”
They expect these next steps to take around five years to complete.
“This discovery changes the narrative around SIDS and is the start of a very exciting journey ahead. We will be able to work with babies while they are alive and make sure they live onHarrington said.
However, some experts urge caution about the study, arguing that the sample size used by the Australian team is quite small and that the blood samples tested were more than two years old.
dr Gabrina Dixon, director of advanced diversity in academic pediatrics at Children’s National in Washington, told CNN the study was interesting, “but I I wouldn’t call it a thing yet. It could be promising for future research, but it’s such a small number of children in this study that many more numbers are needed to say this is what it is.”
On Thursday, First Candle, an organization dedicated to ending SIDS and other sleep-related childhood deaths, issued a warning about the study.
“This is progress, and for that we must be optimistic, but not the full answerCEO Alison Jacobson said in a statement. “Our concern with developing a test for SIDS vulnerability is that parents get a false sense of security and adopt unsafe sleep practices.”
Jenny Ward, chief executive of the Lullaby Trust, told The Guardian that it’s important for carers to continue to follow advice to sleep safely.
“The findings of this study are interesting and more work needs to be done. We look forward to seeing more as this research continues and we hope it will help us understand more about SIDS.”
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