Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is a tragic medical phenomenon in which infants under one year of age die for no known cause.
SIDS accounts for a number of the 3,400 sudden and unexpected childhood deaths each year in the United States according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), yet researchers have struggled to discover what causes them.
New research into the condition has attracted a great deal of attention this week.
On May 6, 2022, a study was published in the journal eBioMedicine which aimed to investigate an underlying factor associated with SIDS in infants.
AN report about the study by BioSpace, a digital hub for news and jobs in the life sciences, has been widely shared on Twitter. One popular post, which had gained more than 100,000 likes as of Friday in less than 24 hours, read: “They found the cause of SIDS.”
The BioSpace article states that the new study “confirmed not only how these babies are dying, but why.”
He said the researchers were able to confirm a theory that SIDS was caused by a defect in the part of the brain responsible for waking babies from sleep and controlling their breathing, based on the fact that the activity of a chemical called butyrylcholinesterase (BChE) was lower in babies who died of SIDS compared with live babies and those who died of other causes.
It’s true that researchers say they’ve found evidence that lower activity of the chemical BChE is associated with SIDS, an important step in preventing a condition that has left heartbroken families with no answers.
BChE is an enzyme scientists don’t fully understand, but studies suggest it may be involved in nerve signal transmission, according to Medline Plus.
The new study claims that it may be involved in central nervous system arousal systems and “it may” be the case that a decrease in BChE activity could result in a poor response to an environmental challenge such as CO2 rebreathing.
But care must be taken when claiming that scientists have found a “cause” of SIDS. This is not entirely correct.
What scientists have done is identify what may be a telltale sign, also called a “biochemical marker,” in babies who died of SIDS, compared to those who didn’t.
This, the study states, “represents the possibility of identifying babies at risk of SIDS before they die and opens new avenues for future research on specific interventions.”
In other words, it could help doctors determine which babies are at risk for SIDS and find ways to help them.
But the researchers specifically note that their finding “may become a new disease category or ’cause’ of these sudden deaths” only once confirmed in future studies.
One limitation of the May 6 study is that while scientists tested more than 600 control samples, they don’t know how common this abnormality is in the general population. Again, this is something that could become clearer in future studies.
The Lullaby Trust, a British charity that raises awareness of SIDS, warned against reports that a cause of SIDS had been found on Friday.
“This study seeks to identify a biomarker that could help detect infants at increased risk of SIDS, and we urge caution when reporting any research into the ’causes’ of SIDS,” the charity said in a statement. Press release on May 13.
“Claims that a cause of SIDS has been found could give false hope to families whose baby has died suddenly and unexpectedly and may downplay the continued importance of safer sleep advice.
“While the investigation is ongoing, we urge all parents and caregivers of infants to follow evidence-based safer sleep advice to reduce the risk of SIDS occurring.
“This includes: always putting the baby to sleep on their back in a clear sleeping space on a flat, firm, waterproof mattress with no bulky bedding, pillows or bumpers. This advice has ensured a significant decrease in the number of babies dying of SIDS”.
Additionally, Peter Blair, professor of epidemiology and statistics at the Center for Academic Child Health at the University of Bristol, said news week:
“This is an interesting study and it would be good to know more about the categorization of death, background characteristics and risk factors related to last sleep for those infants with SIDS who scored low for this marker.
“We have to be a bit cautious as the numbers are small and this is a one-time study, but it would obviously be a good idea to try to repeat this observational work.
“I don’t think enough evidence has been presented yet to determine whether this is a biomarker of SIDS or associated with other risk factors, for example, smoking, and certainly not enough evidence yet to describe this as causal.”
Researchers have made an important discovery that in the future could allow doctors to identify babies at risk for SIDS and help them, that’s for sure. It could lead to finding a cause. But this is not the same as conclusively identifying a cause. More research is needed, as the study authors themselves clarify.
NEWSWEEK FACT CHECK
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