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New SIDS clue found

Babies who die from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) appear to have low levels of a chemical in their brains that plays a crucial role in regulating breathing, heart rate and sleep, according to a new federally-funded study.

SIDS is a devastating syndrome that has long baffled researchers. It involves the death of an infant before his or her first birthday that cannot be explained. It claims more than 2,300 babies each year in the United States, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

For the new study, Hanna Kinney of the Harvard Medical School in Boston and her colleagues examined tissue samples from the brains of 35 babies who died from SIDS and 10 babies who died from other known causes. The tissue came from a part of the brain known as the medullla, which regulates basic functions such as body temperature, breathing, blood pressure and heart rate.

In a report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the researchers reported that the babies who died from SIDS had 26 pecent lower levels of the brain chemical serotonin, as well as 22 percent lower levels of a substance called tryptophan hydroxylase, an enzyme needed to make serotonin. Serotonin has a variety of functions in the brain, including helping regulate breathing, heart rate and blood pressure during sleep.

The findings suggest that SIDS occurs when babies born with this abnormality are placed face-down to sleep during their first year of life. Their ability to stabilize their breathing is still developing. Most children would be able to move their faces or heads and wake up if they were having trouble breathing face down. But babies born with this intrinsic abnormality may be unable to respond properly.

Researchers have long known that placing infants to sleep on their backs could significantly reduce the risk for SIDS. A national campaign to educate parents about avoiding putting their babies to sleep on the stomachs has reduced the SIDS rate.

The researchers hope the new findings will enable them to develop a test to identify newborns at greatest risk for SIDS and reduce the toll from the syndrome even further..

By Rob Stein  |  February 3, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Motherhood , Neurological disorders  
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In addition to common sense things like not putting small infants face down (or leaving blankets or other obstructions near their heads) it also helps to have a fan running in the room. You shouldn't blast it right on the baby, but a small fan that blows right over the top of the child or crib will circulate fresh air and help him or her breathe. Blankets and other cloth materials should be very light and, when held up to your face, see-through. This reduces suffocation risks.

Posted by: zippyspeed | February 3, 2010 9:25 AM | Report abuse

Seems like this is a significant breakthrough. Congratulations to Ms. Kinney and her team.

Posted by: tojo45 | February 3, 2010 11:07 AM | Report abuse

Does this "condition" continue into adulthood?

Could it be one of the causes of sleep apnea?

Just curious.

Posted by: bmschumacher | February 3, 2010 11:33 AM | Report abuse

When my oldest was born 19 years ago, the hospital insisted that we never put her on her back to sleep, but on her stomach (to avoid choking on vomit or other fluids). Didn't make sense to us and we mostly ignored it. The advice changed 4 years later for the next one (side) and then the last 4 years later (back).

Glad to hear there's some research behind this suggestion, at least.

Posted by: drmary | February 4, 2010 5:38 PM | Report abuse

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