Researcher Dr. Carmel Harrington and her late son
The Sydney Children's Hospital Network | Carmel Harrington

Scientists Studying SIDS Make Breakthrough, Led By Researcher Who Lost Child To SIDS

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS, has been documented for centuries. Once more commonly known as crib death, the causes of the ailment — which can cause an otherwise healthy baby to die — remain unknown.

But, thanks to groundbreaking research, scientists have pinpointed a biomarker that may one day be used to identify babies at risk of SIDS — led by a researcher on a mission after losing her son to SIDS 29 years ago.

SIDS usually occurs while a baby is sleeping, between the hours of midnight and 9 a.m.

A baby's crib
Unsplash | Bastien Jaillot

There are generally no warning signs beforehand. SIDS affects somewhere in the range of 1 in 1,000 to 1 in 10,000 of all babies. This makes it individually unlikely, but still widespread.

Researchers have never been sure what causes SIDS.

Graph showing SIDS rates
Wikipedia | None

While it's generally understood that SIDS causes an infant not to wake up if it stops breathing during sleep, the cause of the phenomenon hasn't been known. Furthermore, it's been impossible to diagnose a baby as having a predisposition towards SIDS.

Australian researchers say they've made a significant discovery.

Sydney Children's Hospital
Wikimedia Commons | J Bar

In their study, researchers from The Children's Hospital Westmead in Sydney, Australia released their findings, published in the June 2022 edition of The Lancet's eBioMedicine journal.

As it turns out, SIDS appears to have a connection with a brain enzyme.

The enzyme in question is butyrylcholinesterase (BChE).

The enzyme butyrylcholinesterase
Wikipedia | Emw

Researchers found that infants who died of SIDS had significantly lower amounts of the enzyme in their brain.

Why is this significant? BChE is critical to the brain's arousal pathway, meaning that lower levels of BChE make it less likely that a baby will wake up if they stop breathing.

For the lead researcher, this is personal.

SIDS researcher Dr. Carmel Harrington's late son
The Sydney Children's Hospitals Network | Carmel Harrington

Dr. Carmel Harrington lost her son Damien, seen here, to SIDS 29 years ago. The experience prompted Harrington to return to her old career as a research biochemist. She's spent nearly three decades trying to find the reason for her son's death.

Harrington couldn't accept the lack of answers.

SIDS researcher Dr. Carmel Harrington
The Sydney Children's Hospitals Network | Carmel Harrington

"Nobody could tell me [why my son died]," Harrington said. "They just said it's a tragedy. But it was a tragedy that didn't sit well with my scientific brain."

"These families can now live with the knowledge that this was not their fault."

However, Harrington later downplayed the significance of the finding somewhat.

A baby's crib
Unsplash | freestocks

The discovery of the lack of that particular enzyme in babies who died from SIDS doesn't indicate a cause, Harrington stressed to The Atlantic.

Rather, the researchers think that their "finding represents the possibility for the future identification of infants at risk for SIDS."

However, there's some debate as to whether a test to identify babies at higher risk of SIDS would even be useful.

A scientist at work
Unsplash | Julia Koblitz

Benjamin Mazer, a physician writing in that same article for The Atlantic, noted that all screening tests have issues.

"A wonky SIDS test would have catastrophic ill effects," Mazer wrote. "A false positive result would terrify new parents. A false negative could lead them to abandon safe-sleeping practices—or far worse, make them seem at fault if SIDS did strike."

Losing a child to SIDS can happen to anyone.

A baby in a crib
Unsplash | Helena Lopes

Thousands of parents lose their infant to SIDS every year. Elon Musk, for example, lost a child to SIDS in 2002. It's one of the most common fears a new parent can face.

The good news is that SIDS deaths have plummeted merely with the introduction of safe sleeping practices.

But, as Harrington herself said, "this finding is only one bit of the puzzle and there is so much more to learn."

Let us know what you think of these developments in the comments section.

h/t: ABC, The Atlantic