NIH Study Finds Potential Biomarker for SIDS

Black and white photo of a yawning baby girl with a headband. She wears pajamas that cover her hands.

A study was published on the National Library of Medicine website that was titled: “Butyrylcholinerase is a potential biomarker for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome”. The study was undertaken to evaluate BChE activity in infants and young children who had died from SIDS.

Mayo Clinic explains that Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) 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. Although the cause is unknown, it appears that SIDS might be associated with defects in the portion of an infant’s brain that controls breathing and arousal from sleep.

BioSpace reported that, according to Mayo Clinic, many in the medical community suspected this phenomenon could be caused by a defect in the part of the brain that controls arousal from sleep and breathing. The theory was that if the infant stopped breathing during sleep, the defect would keep them from startling or waking up.

In the case-controlled study, researchers measured BChE activity and total protein in dried blood spots taken at birth as part of the newborn screening program. Results for each of 67 unexpected deaths classified by the coroner (aged 1 week – 104 week) = Cases, were compared to 10 date of birth – and gender-matched surviving controls, with five cases reclassified to meet the criteria for SIDS, including the criterion of age 3 weeks to 1 year.

The researchers interpreted the findings, noting that BCHEsa, measured in dried blood spots taken 2-3 days after birth, was lower in babies who subsequently died of SIDS compared to surviving controls and other Non-SIDS deaths. They conclude that a previously unidentified cholinergic defect, identifiable by abnormal -BChEsa, is present at birth in SIDS babies and represents a measurable, specific, vulnerability prior to their death.

According to BioSpace, Dr. Carmel Harrington, the lead researcher of the study, did an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) in which she said that her son unexpectedly died as an infant 29 years ago. At the time, she was told that it was a tragedy, but that “didn’t sit well with my scientific brain.” 

Dr. Carmel Harrington explained why this discovery is so important for the parents whose babies suffered from SIDS. She said, “These families can now live with the knowledge that this was not their fault.”

Mayo Clinic pointed out causes of SIDS. This includes a combination of physical and sleep environmental factors that make an infant more vulnerable to SIDS. These factors vary from child to child. Physical factors include: brain defects, low birth weight, and/or respiratory infection.

The baby’s sleeping position can also cause SIDS. Babies sleeping on their stomach or side may have more difficulty breathing than those placed on their backs. Sleeping on a soft surface, especially if the baby is lying face down on a fluffy comforter, a soft mattress, or a comforter, can block a baby’s airway. Sharing a bed with parents increases the risk of SIDS.

In addition, Mayo Clinic says that baby boys are more likely to die of SIDS than baby girls are. Babies are most vulnerable to SIDS between the second and fourth months of life. For reasons not well understood, nonwhite infants are more likely to develop SIDS. There’s also a family history connection. Babies who’ve had siblings or cousins die of SIDS are at a higher risk of SIDS.

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