Scientists in Australia have found that some babies at risk of sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS, have low levels of an enzyme called butyrylcholinesterase (BChE) in their blood. Their study, published May 6 in the journal eBioMedicine, could pave the way for newborn screening and interventions if the results are corroborated by further research.
“It’s the first time we’ve ever had a potential biomarker for SIDS,” said Dr. Carmel Harrington, who led the research at the Children’s Hospital at Westmead, in Sydney, Australia.
Researchers have been trying to chip away at the biological underpinnings of the puzzling syndrome for decades. And while public health campaigns have drastically reduced the incidence of SIDS, it remains a leading cause of sudden and unexpected death in infants under the age of 1 in Western countries. In the United States, about 3,400 babies die suddenly and unexpectedly each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This includes infants who die suddenly from a known cause, such as suffocation, as well as those who die without a clear cause, such as from SIDS. Nearly half of the sudden and unexpected infant death (SUID) cases in the U.S. are due to SIDS.
What the new study found
One of the reasons that SIDS remains so tragic and mysterious is because it is likely not caused by a single biological mechanism, but a combination of factors that come together in a perfect storm, said Dr. Thomas Keens, a pediatric pulmonologist at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Previous studies have pointed to low activity or damage in parts of infants’ brains that control heart rate, breathing and arousal from sleep, for instance, as well as to environmental stressors such as soft bedding or secondhand smoke.