A recently announced, groundbreaking study, conducted by a scientist who lost her baby to SIDS nearly 30 years ago, may have discovered an answer to this mysterious syndrome.
The study was conducted at The Children’s Hospital Westmead in Sydney and is published in the latest volume of The Lancet’s eBioMedicine, the upcoming June 2022 issue.
Scientists have explained for years that SIDS — the sudden death of an infant during sleep in its first year — is connected to a malfunction in the brain that causes some babies not to startle or wake if they stop breathing while sleeping. But until now, no one knew exactly what was leading to this often fatal malfunction. The latest study has identified that the enzyme butyrylcholinesterase (BChE) — an enzyme vital to the brain’s arousal pathway — is significantly lower in babies who died of SIDS.
According to the announcement of the study findings, Dr. Carmel Harrington, the lead author of the study, lost her son Damien to SIDS 29 years ago. She was told to “go home and enjoy [her] living babies and have more.” But, Dr. Harrington would not settle with that answer. She soon quit her job as a lawyer and returned to her former career as a research biochemist. She has since devoted her research to finding a cause for her son’s death.
“Babies have a very powerful mechanism to let us know when they are not happy,” Harrington told The Sydney Children’s Hospital Network. “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.”
Reports indicate researchers analyzed dried blood samples of 722 babies — 67 of whom died from SIDS along with 10 blood samples of babies who shared the same date of birth and gender as one of the babies with SIDS listed as their cause of death. The samples were collected as part of a newborn screening program.
The results showed that that babies who died of SIDS had much lower levels of BChE days after birth.
The CDC indicates 1,250 infants died of SIDS in 2019. Experts note SIDS deaths have gone down in recent years with the help of eliminating other related factors, like tummy sleeping and parental smoking. They stress these safety measures are still critical to ensure continued safety for your baby. Harrington refused to accept the “answers” she received about the loss of her son.
“Nobody could tell me,” Harrington, who has a PhD in Sleep Medicine from Sydney University, told Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). “They just said it’s a tragedy. But it was a tragedy that didn’t sit well with my scientific brain.”
In the past, many grieving SIDS families have dealt with guilt — and with simply not understanding what happened to their child.
“These families can now live with the knowledge that this was not their fault,” she added.
Officials note that while this breakthrough is incredibly important, it will not make an immediate impact in terms of fewer deaths. However, it paves the way for even more research and breakthroughs in the future.
“This discovery changes the narrative around SIDS and is the start of a very exciting journey ahead,” Harrington told The Sydney Children’s Hospital Network. “We are going to be able to work with babies while they are living and make sure they keep living.”
All of the funding for the study was provided by a crowd funding campaign.