Brain defect causes SIDS, study says
BOSTON -- Scientists reported Tuesday the most extensive signs yet that Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, a mysterious killer of about 3,000 American babies a year, stems from abnormalities in a part of the brain that controls basic functions such as...
BOSTON -- Scientists reported Tuesday the most extensive signs yet that Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, a mysterious killer of about 3,000 American babies a year, stems from abnormalities in a part of the brain that controls basic functions such as breathing.
The findings, by researchers at Children's Hospital Boston, fit into an emerging biological theory of SIDS -- one that backs up the practical advice to prevent crib death by putting babies to sleep on their backs.
Scientists believe that SIDS babies are born with a genetic defect that keeps them from responding properly to a "stressor" such as lacking adequate oxygen while lying face-down. Babies who die of SIDS apparently have not developed a sort of "alarm system" that would make them respond to rising carbon dioxide levels by turning their heads and breathing harder, said Dr. Hannah Kinney of Children's Hospital, senior author of the study published in today's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The study was based on autopsies of 31 SIDS victims, about three-quarters of whom had widespread serotonin abnormalities in the brain stem. Serotonin, best known for its role in lifting depression, serves many functions in the brain; in the brainstem, it helps regulate breathing and other automatic bodily functions.
Advances in understanding the biology of SIDS could eventually translate into screening babies to determine whether they are at genetic risk and then giving them drugs to correct their brain abnormalities, researchers say.
But for now, Kinney said, "the most important thing about this work is that it gives biological plausibility to the 'Back to Sleep' campaign."
The campaign encourages parents to put babies to sleep on their backs and is widely credited with reducing the SIDS death rate by more than 50 percent since the early 1990s.
Serotonin abnormalities have been suspected as the possible villain in SIDS for several years, but the new research finds that they are more widespread and serious than previously believed.
"This is a fabulous clue," said Dr. Gene Nattie, a Dartmouth College physiology professor who researches SIDS but was not involved in Kinney's work.
"To have these kinds of clues," he said, "gives investigators who want to find ways that biology could go awry, and cause death, a much better handle on where to start."
The serotonin work also raises the prospect of new tools for forensic investigators trying to determine whether an infant died of SIDS or abuse.
The serotonin abnormalities were found in about 75 percent of the SIDS victims in the study, Kinney said. In theory, if an autopsy of a dead infant found such abnormalities, it could be considered strong evidence that the cause of death was SIDS.
The tests are "not ready for prime time in the sense that they're not ready for routine clinical use," said Dr. Carl Hunt, a federal researcher who studies SIDS. But "it's important that the pediatric community know" that such postmortem tests are on their way.