Researchers try to find cause of SIDS

There’s new hope in the fight against Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

Researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital think they may have found the cause of SIDS. They are blaming it on brainstem abnormalities.

“We do think the babies have an underlying disease,” said Dr. David Paterson, principal research associate in the department of pathology at Boston. “They don’t just suffocate. It’s not just the sleep environment that causes it.”

The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention defines SIDS as the sudden, unexplainable death of an infant younger than 1 year of age. According to the CDC, about 2,000 infants die from SIDS every year in the U.S.

Paterson was involved with the experiments and data collection that led to the recent findings. The lab he works in has studied brainstem abnormalities for more than 20 years.

“SIDS babies have a problem maintaining their breathing, heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature when they sleep,” Paterson said. “The brainstem controls those things, so that was the obvious place to look for an underlying issue. The abnormalities are actually in a neurotransmitter called serotonin.”

The researchers belive babies with the abnormalities may not be able to turn their heads or push off the covers if they become too hot or are faced with asphyxia.

Paterson and his colleagues examined the cases of 71 SIDS babies who underwent autopsies at the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s office between 1997 and 2008.

“We divided them by the sleeping environments — whether the babies were lying facedown when they died or had lots of blankets around that might have covered their airways,” Paterson said. “We compared those to the infants who were lying on their backs in safe environments.”

They found that the sleeping arrangements didn’t matter.

“Regardless of whether the babies were in safe or unsafe environments, they still had the same kind of deficient serotonin levels,” Paterson said. “What that says is both sets of those SIDS babies have a brainstem defect responsible for causing their deaths.”

Paterson said there is currently no way to tell if a live baby has a serotonin deficiency. He’s hoping the study will change that.

“We want to find a non-invasive way of identifying it,” Paterson said. “Hopefully, we can also find a drug treatment that will provide protection.”

In the meantime, he says it’s still important for parents to follow safe sleep practices with their infants.

“We don’t want babies to get into a situation they can’t get out of,” Paterson said. “Instances of SIDS have fallen by 50 percent since the Safe to Sleep campaign started in the mid-’90s. While we don’t think compromised sleeping environments cause SIDS, they are a risk factor.”

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