Some news about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. I still think sleep apnea is the most common cause of SIDS. No matter the cause, the death of a child is a traumatic experience for parents. My wife and I know this from experience.
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Babies who die in their sleep from SIDS may have abnormalities in a part of the brain that helps control heart rate, breathing and blood pressure, according to Harvard-affiliated researchers looking for the cause of sudden infant death syndrome.
Their research, reported in today's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, found defects in babies brainstems that appear to interfere with the ability to use serotonin, a brain chemical that plays a role in vital functions such as breathing and blood pressure.
While the study involved a small number of infants, specialists in the field said it adds weight to the idea that SIDS may be at least partly due to underlying biological conditions, such as defects in the brain.
"This finding lends credence to the view that SIDS risk may greatly increase when an underlying predisposition combines with an environmental risk, such as sleeping face down, at a developmentally sensitive time in early life," said Dr. Duane Alexander, director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
SIDS, also called crib death, kills more than 2,000 U.S. infants each year. In Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, 275 deaths were attributed to SIDS between 1995 and 2005, according to a South Florida Sun-Sentinel analysis of data from county medical examiners' records.
Boys are more likely than girls to suffer SIDS, which was true in the South Florida deaths -- 151 boys and 124 girls -- and the researchers found serotonin defects were more prevalent in the boys in the study.
"It should take the guilt away from any parent who has lost a baby because they always wonder, `What did I do wrong?' Now, they need to really understand, `My baby had a disease,'" said Marian Willinger, a SIDS researcher at the NIH.
The study sample was small, involving 31 SIDS babies whose brains were compared with those of 10 infants who died from other causes. The SIDS babies had about twice the number of cells with serotonin defects.
Such an abnormality by itself is not enough to cause a baby's death, experts stressed.
"It's interesting and puts us onto something that could lead to further study, but it doesn't mean that every susceptible baby will have SIDS. Other things have to come together, sort of like Jupiter aligning with Mars," said Dr. Carmen K. Steigman, medical director of pediatric pathology at Broward General Medical Center.
Other risk factors -- sleeping face down, maternal smoking, soft sleep surfaces and loose bedding, overheating, illness, prematurity -- can contribute, she said.
The researchers said they hope their work leads to a diagnostic test that could identify infants at risk and allow parents to take precautions, but that probably will take at least 10 years, said Dr. Hannah Kinney, SIDS researcher at Children's Hospital Boston, who was lead author of the JAMA paper.