Australian researchers say they may have discovered the first biological explanation for sudden infant death syndrome or SIDS.
Researchers at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead said they have found that babies who die suddenly in their sleep have decreased levels of Orexin, a brain protein responsible for regulating sleep.
Dr Rita Machaalani, the sleep unit manager at Westmead, said their evidence shows that SIDS is caused by a biological defect in an area of the brain responsible for sleep regulation.
In a study of over 27 SIDS cases and 19 controls, it was discovered that the level of Orexin was 20 per cent lower in the brains of those babies who had died from SIDS. “That seems to indicate that these babies may have had some defect in the message that says this baby should arouse during their sleep time but it didn’t get through to do so,” Dr Machaalani said.
Dr Machaalani said her team was doing a study to find the mechanism responsible for the reduction in Orexin, which has previously been implicated in sleep disorders in adults.
However, medical researcher and associate professor Alexandra Martiniuk from The George Institute for Global Health at the University of Sydney, said that this protein could be just “one of many” causes of SIDS. “I have read a lot of coroner reports of children who have died of SIDS and there are these other risk factors. They do often state that they found the child lying face down or face embedded between mattress and something else,” she said.
Assoc. Prof. Martiniuk added that SIDS could be the result of a combination of both biological and environmental factors, such as low levels of Orexin and bad sleeping habits.
It is now hoped that the “breakthrough” research will lead to babies being screened for this protein in the future.
However, since the test would not be available for maybe another decade, parents still need to follow the SIDS prevention guidelines.