New SIDS ‘breakthrough’ good start, but more work to come, expert says

A new study from researchers at the Children’s Hospital at Westmead in Australia is making headlines as the research could solve the mystery of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). However, a Boston Children’s Hospital expert said to temper your expectations.

“Media coverage is suggesting that there is new research pinpointing the cause of SIDS and allowing doctors to test for it. The paper is an interesting and solid contribution and we are very happy to see it in press,” SIDS researcher Dr. Richard Goldstein said. “Despite the coverage, however, the… story is very preliminary and needs a lot more research before we understand its actual significance.”

The study identified the first biochemical marker that could help detect which babies are more at risk of SIDS. The study measured an enzyme called Butyrylcholinesterase (BChE) and found that BChE levels at birth were significantly lower in babies who later died of SIDS. BChE plays a role in the brain’s arousal pathway, so a lack of the enzyme could mean an arousal deficit in babies. This reduces an infant’s ability to react to their environment, which researchers said could create a vulnerability to SIDS.

Setting these findings in stone could actually cause more harm than good, however.

“There is a lot of work to do before understanding how specifically [BChE] can identify risk,” Dr. Goldstein said. “The risk of using it too soon is that it will unnecessarily alarm parents that their baby will die, and, to make it worse, be inaccurate in our warning. It’s a big deal.”

The study does show promise, though; Dr. Goldstein said it could help increase awareness of the disease. “We welcome the contribution but think there is a lot more to know before we call it a breakthrough,” he said. “I should also share at how humbled we feel by the incredible interest the study generates. It reminds us of what this is all about.”

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