Researchers have found an enzyme that may correlate to SIDS

by Trinity Cardinal

Lauren Dempsey, MS in Biomedicine and Law, RN, FISM News 


Australian researchers have identified an enzyme called butyrylcholinesterase (BChE) that they found to be “significantly lower” in infants who died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Researchers are hopeful that these findings can be applied to create new interventions and clinical applications to prevent infant deaths in the future. 

BChE is an enzyme associated with the cholinergic system, which is part of the autonomic system and controls body functions such as breathing and blood pressure. Finding low levels of BChE and its correlation to SIDS could be a potential factor for identifying vulnerable infants under the “triple risk model.” This hypothesis identifies three factors leading to SIDS as a vulnerable infant, a critical developmental period, and an external stressor.

Research has previously indicated that autonomic dysfunction may be a factor, though it has remained unclear why seemingly healthy children unexpectedly die. This new research is providing insight into a potential explanation and, while not a definitive cause, the information is a step in the direction to better identify infants at risk for SIDS.

In the research published this month in The Lancet, scientists examined blood samples taken from hundreds of newborns after birth, including 67 infants that later died from SIDS. The research showed that BChE was lower in these babies, and believe that the enzyme is involved in neural function. While the authors conclude that this could be used in the future as a measurable way to predict infants at risk for SIDS, it was a very small study and more research needs to be done.

Lead researcher from Children’s Hospital at Westmead in New South Wales,  Dr. Carmel Harrington, lost her seemingly healthy baby to SIDS over 29 years ago and has been seeking a cause since.  About these findings, Harrington said, “These families can now live with the knowledge that this was not their fault.”

Each year about 3,400 infants die from SIDS and tragically there has been no identifiable cause or risk. SIDS is one of the leading causes of death in infants under a year old in America and unlike other diseases or illnesses, there is no known prevention and is often only diagnosed after all other causes of death have been excluded.  This is a terrifying possibility for new parents, but experts do suggest that certain factors are known to contribute to SIDS.

The United States National Institutes of Health’s  Safe to Sleep campaign is designed to provide education about SIDS and encourages prevention measures. According to the NIH, the greatest risk factors for SIDS are stomach sleeping, sleeping an infant on soft surfaces and/or with blankets or bedding, cigarette smoke, and co-sleeping/bed-sharing. These recommendations are not promised to prevent death and are based more on theory than on definitive findings. Researchers hope these new findings can offer clearer insight and positive interventions.