A team of Australian researchers has identified a biochemical marker in the blood that could help identify newborns at risk of sudden infant death syndrome, a breakthrough they say paves the way for future interventions to prevent tragedies.
In their study, babies who died of SIDS had lower levels of an enzyme called butyrylcholinesterase (BChE) shortly after birth, the researchers said.
BChE plays a major role in the brain’s wakefulness pathway, and low levels are thought to reduce a sleeping infant’s ability to wake up or respond to their environment.
The results are game-changing and offer not only hope for the future, but also answers for the past, said Dr Carmel Harrington, study leader at Westmead Children’s Hospital in Australia, in a statement.
“A seemingly healthy baby who falls asleep and doesn’t wake up is every parent’s nightmare and until now there was absolutely no way of knowing which baby would succumb,” Harrington said.
“But that is no longer the case. We found the first marker indicating vulnerability before death.
Using dried blood drops taken at birth as part of a newborn screening program, Harrington’s team compared BChE levels in 26 babies who later died of SIDS, 41 infants who died of other causes and 655 surviving infants.
The fact that levels of the enzyme were significantly lower in infants who died as a result of SIDS suggests that SIDS babies were inherently vulnerable to dysfunction in the autonomic nervous system, which controls unconscious and involuntary functions in the body, said Researchers.
The Sydney Children’s Hospital Network in Australia called the discovery a “world first”.
Not waking when appropriate “has long been thought to be a key component of an infant’s vulnerability” to SIDS, the research team said in The Lancet’s eBio Medicine.
SIDS is the unexplained death of an apparently healthy child while sleeping.
Harrington lost her own child to SIDS 29 years ago and has dedicated her career to researching the disease, the statement said.
Further research “needs to be undertaken urgently” to determine whether routine measurement of BChE could potentially help prevent future deaths from SIDS, the investigators said.