The leading cause of death of babies in their first year of life is Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or SIDS, yet there might now be actual hope in finally solving the mystery why the deaths happen at all. SIDS is believed to be accountable for around 2,000 deaths of infants in the United States, explains the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Researchers, who were located at Boston Children’s Hospital, have discovered that numerous babies who have died “unexpectedly and suddenly” had fundamental brainstem abnormalities that were not at all normal preceding their deaths. The hospital had these findings printed up in the December 2013 issue of Pediatrics.
Such abnormalities damage brainstem circuits that help regulate heart rate, breathing, temperature during sleep and blood pressure. The research was done by neuropathologist Dr. Hannah Kinney and a group of her colleagues. They think the abnormalities stop sleeping babies from moving when they end up taking in too much carbon dioxide because of inadequate ventilation, do not breathe enough oxygen or they become overheated.
In the research study, Kinney and her group wanted to know if all the deceased infants were truly normal. They revisited the information they had, reviewing cases of over 70 infants who had passed away unexpectedly and without warning. They had been given autopsies at the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s office from the years 1997 to 2008, and there were brainstem samples of the babies available for examination. The researchers assembled the infants to their sleep situations. There were those that had been likely to have suffered from suffocation and those that most likely did not, all based on the death scene investigation information.
15 infants who died from SIDS were shown not to have suffocated, 35 SIDS infants, whose deaths were considered as being from possible suffocation asphyxia and nine infants who had plainly died from other factors. The team left out the group of nine infants, who had inadequate information or had confirmation of some other risk factors for death, such as being exposed to drugs or suffering from the extremes of either high or cold temperatures.
There were brainstem neurochemical abnormalities, which included serotonin, serotonin receptors and GABA receptors found in each group. The babies in both of these groups, both with and also without any environmental factors for suffocation, had identical brainstem abnormalities, and each of the groups varied significantly from the control group. Even the infants that died in a possible suffocation situation, such as sleeping with the face down or being placed next to an adult, showed that they had core brain stem abnormalities that most likely caused them to become vulnerable to sudden death if they experienced any period where they suffered a lack of oxygen, explained Dr. Kinney.
Such deformities prevented the brain stem from being able to respond correctly and wake the baby up. The investigators have confidence that these findings finally show that sudden inexplicable death in infants is related to fundamental vulnerabilities, and that not every infant who dies in a compromised sleep environment is actually a normal baby. Of course there are sleeping situations that could cause the death of any baby, such as becoming trapped in a crib, but if it is just from sleeping with the face down, the baby who dies could have some kind of underlying brain stem weakness, added Kinney. There have to be ways found in which to test for such underlying susceptibility in living babies and then be able to treat it when it is found. The group is now focused on creating such tests and treatments.
The doctor stated that it was vitally important to keep up safe sleeping practices so to help babies from any possible situations in which they could suffocate or choke. Hopefully this study will help in the prevention of SIDS.
By Kimberly Ruble