Researcher Dr. Carmel Harrington and her late son
The Sydney Children's Hospital Network | Carmel Harrington

Scientists Finally Find Cause Of SIDS, Led By Researcher Who Lost Child To SIDS

May 13, 2022

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS, has been documented for centuries. Once more commonly known as crib death, the causes of the ailment — which can cause an otherwise healthy baby to die — have been unknown.

Now, thanks to groundbreaking research, scientists have pinpointed the cause of SIDS — led by a researcher on a mission after losing her son to SIDS 29 years ago.

SIDS usually occurs while a baby is sleeping, between the hours of midnight and 9 a.m.

A baby's crib
Unsplash | Bastien Jaillot

There are generally no warning signs beforehand. SIDS affects somewhere in the range of 1 in 1,000 to 1 in 10,000 of all babies. This makes it individually unlikely, but still widespread.

Researchers have never been sure what causes SIDS.

Graph showing SIDS rates
Wikipedia | None

While it's generally understood that SIDS causes an infant not to wake up if it stops breathing during sleep, the cause of the phenomenon hasn't been known. Furthermore, it's been impossible to diagnose a baby as having a predisposition towards SIDS.

Australian researchers say they've pinpointed the cause.

Sydney Children's Hospital
Wikimedia Commons | J Bar

In a groundbreaking study, researchers from The Children's Hospital Westmead in Sydney, Australia released their findings, published in the June 2022 edition of The Lancet's eBioMedicine journal.

As it turns out, SIDS has everything to do with a brain enzyme.

It's tied to the enzyme butyrylcholinesterase (BChE).

The enzyme butyrylcholinesterase
Wikipedia | Emw

Researchers found that infants who died of SIDS had significantly lower amounts of the enzyme in their brain.

Why is this significant? BChE is critical to the brain's arousal pathway, meaning that lower levels of BChE make it less likely that a baby will wake up if they stop breathing.

For the lead researcher, this is personal.

SIDS researcher Dr. Carmel Harrington's late son
The Sydney Children's Hospitals Network | Carmel Harrington

Dr. Carmel Harrington lost her son Damien, seen here, to SIDS 29 years ago. The experience prompted Harrington to return to her old career as a research biochemist. She's spent nearly three decades trying to find the reason for her son's death.

Harrington couldn't accept the lack of answers.

SIDS researcher Dr. Carmel Harrington
The Sydney Children's Hospitals Network | Carmel Harrington

"Nobody could tell me [why my son died]," Harrington said. "They just said it's a tragedy. But it was a tragedy that didn't sit well with my scientific brain."

"These families can now live with the knowledge that this was not their fault."

It's a huge breakthrough.

A baby's crib
Unsplash | freestocks

It cannot possibly be overstated how significant this study is. SIDS has been documented for many hundreds of years, and up until this point, no cause was known.

Now, a cause is known. The next step is finding a cure.

What comes next?

A scientist at work
Unsplash | Julia Koblitz

"This discovery changes the narrative around SIDS and is the start of a very exciting journey ahead," said Harrington. "We are going to be able to work with babies while they are living and make sure they keep living."

Losing a child to SIDS can happen to anyone.

A baby in a crib
Unsplash | Helena Lopes

Thousands of parents lose their infant to SIDS every year. Elon Musk, for example, lost a child to SIDS in 2002. It's one of the most common fears a new parent can face. Now that more light has been shed on the root causes, we can perhaps look ahead to a future where SIDS can be mitigated.

Let us know what you think of these developments in the comments section.