A researcher who lost her own child to SIDS has made a discovery that could help other parents avoid the same fate. A team led by Australian scientist Carmel Harrington has found that babies who die of sudden infant death syndrome have low levels of a particular enzyme, reports Australia's ABC. That could lead to screening of infants to determine which ones have low levels of the marker, called butyrylcholinesterase (BChE). The study is newly published in the Lancet, where the researchers conclude that "a previously unidentified cholinergic deficit, identifiable by abnormal -BChEsa, is present at birth in SIDS babies and represents a measurable, specific vulnerability prior to their death."
Harrington lost a son to SIDS nearly 30 years ago, and she has devoted her career to finding answers doctors could not give her at the time, per the Sydney Children's Hospital Network, which labels the study a "breakthrough." Harrington explains to ABC that if babies have trouble breathing while asleep, they will typically respond as you'd expect—by waking up and crying. "What this research shows is that some babies don't have this same robust arousal response," says Harrington. That gibes with a previous hypothesis about SIDS, per the Mayo Clinic, but takes things further by zeroing in on a specific marker.
"Now that we know that BChE is involved, we can begin to change the outcome for these babies and make SIDS a thing of the past," says Harrington. Greater awareness about SIDS and related sleeping guidelines—they're spelled out at Mayo, including placing babies to sleep on their backs—have reduced deaths, but the syndrome is still blamed in many post-neo-natal deaths. In the US, the CDC says SIDS is responsible for about 3,400 deaths a year of infants less than a year old. (Scientists say the syndrome led to a false murder conviction of this mother.)