Through education, the number of sudden infant death cases has been falling for years. But infants still die unexpectedly and for no apparent reason. Australian scientists are now identifying an enzyme that makes babies vulnerable while they sleep.
In Germany, 84 children died of sudden infant death syndrome in 2020. That is 0.01 percent of children born in the same year. 30 years ago there were still over 1000 children per year. The fact that the numbers have fallen so sharply is due to the Enlightenment. Accordingly, one should not smoke near the child, it should sleep in its own bed in the parents' room, always on its back, without a pillow and better in a sleeping bag than under a blanket. Nevertheless, there are still cases of sudden infant death, internationally known as "SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome)".
Researchers at Westmead Children's Hospital in Sydney, Australia, now believe they have found a biomarker for sudden infant death syndrome. The study will be published in the June issue of the journal eBioMedicine. It has long been suspected that SIDS could be caused by a defect in the part of the brain that controls the link between sleep and breathing. The theory was that he wouldn't startle or wake the child up if they stopped breathing while they were sleeping.
In order to track down this defect, the study examined the blood of more than 60 deceased infants. The starting material was blood samples taken two to three days after birth as part of preventive medical check-ups. The infants were between one week and two years old when they died.
Each SIDS sample was then compared to blood drawn from healthy babies. The research team around Dr. Carmel Therese Harrington found that in infants who died, the activity of the enzyme butyrylcholinesterase (BChE) was significantly lower than in living infants and other infant deaths without SIDS. BChE plays an important role in the brain's excitation pathway, which explains why SIDS typically occur during sleep.
Harrington had herself lost her son to SIDS. She told ABC broadcaster about the death 29 years ago: "They just said it was a tragedy. But it was a tragedy that didn't sit well with my scientific brain." Since then she has worked to find the cause of SIDS. The current study was funded through a crowdfunding campaign.
In the study, the scientists involved wrote that their find also opens up the possibility of identifying infants at risk of SIDS in good time. A screening test would be possible, for example. It could also provide an approach to eliminate this risk. The discovery is also important for parents who have already lost children to SIDS, says Harrington. "These families can now live with the knowledge that it wasn't their fault."
(This article was first published on Friday, May 13, 2022.)