Researchers find cause of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome

The feet of a baby are seen in a crib. (Photo by Fabian Strauch/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Scientists have published a new study that may offer groundbreaking insight into Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), an occurrence that has previously baffled the medical community. 

SIDS is the unexplained death of a seemingly healthy baby less than a year old, typically during sleep, according to the Mayo Clinic. The CDC reports SIDS accounted for 37% of infant deaths in the United States in 2019.

Now, researchers at The Children's Hospital in Westmead in Sydney, Australia, were able to confirm the cause of SIDS which typically occurs when infants suddenly die in their sleep. 

The medical community had previously believed SIDS was caused by a complication in the infant’s part of the brain that controls the regulation of breathing while sleeping. 

In the latest study, researchers found that infants who died from SIDS had lower levels of an enzyme known as Butyrylcholinesterase (BChE).

This enzyme is thought by scientists to help regulate pathways in the brain which drive a person’s breathing, confirming what scientists had originally hypothesized. 

"We conclude that a previously unidentified cholinergic deficit, identifiable by abnormal -BChEsa, is present at birth in SIDS babies and represents a measurable, specific vulnerability prior to their death," the researchers stated.

Dr. Carmel Harrington, an honorary research fellow who led the study, said its findings were game-changing. Harrington said the study provided an explanation for SIDS and hope for prevention of deaths associated with this mysterious condition.

"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. We have found the first marker to indicate vulnerability prior to death," Harrington said in a news release.

The researchers explained that BChE plays a vital role in the brain’s arousal pathway. They further explained that a deficiency in BChE likely suggests an arousal deficit in babies, which would reduce their abilities to wake or respond to the external environment, making them susceptible to SIDS.

"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," Harrington said.

Dr. Matthew Harris, an emergency medicine pediatrician at Cohen Children’s Medical Center/ Northwell Health on Long Island, New York, was not involved with the study but told Fox News, "The findings of the study are interesting and important. While the sample size is limited, the study seems to indicate that lower levels of this enzyme are associated with a higher risk for sudden infant death syndrome. Importantly, this might present an opportunity for both earlier screening for risk factors during the perinatal period, and might offer scientists and physicians an opportunity to discover an intervention." 

How parents can avoid SIDS, according to pediatricians: 

  • Place your baby on their back for all sleep times 
  • Avoid leaving any loose blankets that could smother the child
  • Keeping babies in the parents' or guardians' sleeping area for at least six months, but not in the adults' beds

FOX News contributed to this story.