Sudden Infant Death Syndrome: Researcher who lost child to SIDS finds cause behind it

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Australian researchers led by Dr Carmel Harrington have identified a biomarker that could identify children at increased risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) while they are still alive. After losing her son Damien to SIDS 29 years ago, Dr. Harrington, a research student at Westmead (CHW) Children’s Hospital, has dedicated her life to finding an answer to the condition.

SIDS is the unexplained death of a healthy child under the age of one during sleep. In India, as per 2019 data, 32 babies die per 1000 live births. In 2019, the unexpected infant mortality rate in the United States was 90.1 deaths per 100,000 live births. SIDS is one of the leading causes of sudden infant mortality in the United States, although its rate has dropped from 130.3 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1990 to 33.3 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2019, according to a US CDC report.

Butyrylcholinesterase (BChE) has been identified by researchers as a biochemical marker that can help prevent infant mortality.

What is SIDS?

SIDS is a sudden infant mortality syndrome. It is one of the leading causes of death in newborns. It is also known as ‘short death’. Babies who die of SIDS appear to be healthy before bedtime. These children show no signs of struggle.

Who is at higher risk for SIDS?

Children 1 to 4 months of age have a higher risk of dying from SIDS. According to reports, more than 80% of SIDS-related deaths occur in children before they reach six months of age.

SIDS: What does research say?

In a study published in The Lancets eBioMedicine, the team analyzed 722 Dry Blood Stains (DBS) BChE activity taken at birth as part of a neonatal screening program. BCHE was measured in both infants who died of SIDS and other causes, and each had a date of birth and sex compared to 10 surviving infants.

What is the role of BChE?

BChE plays a major role in the excitatory pathways of the brain, and researchers believe that its deficiency may indicate an excitatory deficiency, which impairs a child’s ability to respond to waking or external environments, leading to SIDS vulnerability. The lead author, Dr. Harrington, said the study found that BCHE levels were significantly lower in children who later died of SIDS than in life control and other child deaths.

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Dr. Harrington explains the role of BChE in SIDS
“They have a very powerful system for letting us know when children are not happy. Usually, if a child is faced with a life-threatening situation, such as having difficulty breathing during sleep because they are in their womb, they will wake up and scream.” It shows that some babies do not have this same strong emotional response, “said Dr. Harrington.

“It’s been a long time coming, but until now we didn’t know what caused the lack of stimulation. Now we know that BCHE involvement can start to change the outcome for these children and turn SIDS into a thing of the past.”

Can SIDS be avoided?

The US CDC recommends that parents and caregivers sleep in the same room as their baby’s bed. It advises parents to sleep in the same room as the baby until the baby is 6 months old.

Along with this research study, the next steps for researchers are to look at the introduction of BChE biomarkers in neonatal screening and to develop specific interventions to address enzyme deficiencies.

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