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A new study from Australia may have revealed the cause of sudden infant death syndrome.
Around 3,400 babies in the U.S. experience “sudden unexpected infant deaths” each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most of those deaths were attributed to an unknown cause, the organization said.
SIDS mostly occurs in babies under 1 year old, according to the Mayo Clinic. These babies are often seemingly healthy and may not have any obvious differences from other babies.
But a study from Australia determined that babies who die from SIDS have much lower levels of a certain enzyme than living infants or babies who died from other causes.
Researchers measured the enzyme, butyrylcholinesterase, by evaluating 722 dried blood samples from infants who experienced SIDS, babies who died from other causes and those who survived two or three days after their birth. They suspect that the lower levels of the enzyme in the blood of those babies gives them an “inherent vulnerability” other babies don’t have, the study says.
The enzyme is associated with babies’ sleep-wake cycles, and low levels of it might inhibit a baby’s ability to wake up and alert their parents of some sort of issue, the study published online May 6 in the journal eBioMedicine says.
The incidence of SIDS has decreased in recent years, in part due to public health campaigns, the study said. For example, experts recommend that babies sleep on their backs, rather than their stomachs or sides, to reduce difficulty breathing and the odds of sudden death, according to the Mayo Clinic.
But the new discovery may help scientists figure out how to “make SIDS a thing of the past” by developing ways to address the enzyme deficiency, Dr. Carmel Harrington, a lead researcher on the study, said in a news release.
Harrington, who lost her own child to SIDS nearly 30 years ago, said the discovery is part of “a very exciting journey ahead.”
“We are going to be able to work with babies while they are living and make sure they keep living,” Harrington said.