Thursday, 4:30 PM
Boston research supports theory that SIDS results form faulty "alarm system"
By Carey Goldberg, Globe Staff
Boston scientists today reported the most extensive signs yet that Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, a mysterious killer of 3,000 American babies a year, stems from abnormalities in a part of the brain that controls basic functions like breathing.
The findings, by researchers at Children's Hospital Boston, fit into an emerging biological theory of SIDS -- one that backs up the practical advice to prevent crib death by putting all babies to sleep on their backs.
The theory begins with a baby who has a genetic defect that keeps it from responding properly to a "stressor," such as lying face-down and becoming deprived of oxygen.
Babies who die of SIDS seem to lack a sort of "alarm system" that would make them respond to rising carbon dioxide levels by turning their heads and gasping, said Dr. Hannah Kinney of Children's, senior author of the study in tomorrow's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Her paper reports that most of the 31 SIDS victims autopsied had widespread problems in certain brain cells involved with serotonin -- the same brain chemical affected by the anti-depression drug Prozac.
The advances in understanding the biology of SIDS could eventually translate into screening for babies to determine which are at risk, and then drug treatments to correct their brain abnormalities, researchers say.
But for now, Kinney said, "the most important thing about this work is that it gives biological plausibility to the 'Back to Sleep' campaign." The campaign encourages parents to put babies to sleep on their backs and is widely credited with reducing the SIDS death rate by more than 50 percent since the early 1990s.