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SIDS linked to brain abnormality that increases babies’ risk in ‘unsafe sleep conditions,’ study finds

About 3,400 babies die of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) each year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

Now, a new study led by researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School suggests that some of the unexplained deaths may be caused by an abnormality in the medulla, which connects the brain stem and the spinal cord.

The study was published in the Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology on May 25.

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“This places them at greater risk in unsafe sleep conditions, such as prone sleep and bedsharing, when the levels of oxygen around the infant’s airway may be lower than normal,” Haynes said.

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The researchers analyzed brain tissue from 70 infants who died. All 58 of the babies who died from SIDS were shown to have the altered serotonin receptor 2A/C.

“More research is necessary to better understand these mechanisms and how they relate or interact with the specific environmental risk factors that infants may face.”

‘No way to identify risk’

While the study sheds light on one potential cause of SIDS, there is currently “no way to identify an infant at risk for SIDS,” Haynes said — as babies who die of SIDS appear healthy up until the unexplained death.

“Abnormalities in this neurotransmitter system are undetectable in a living infant,” she said. “Because of this, it is critical at all times to follow safe sleep practices.”

Dr. Chandani DeZure, a board-certified pediatrician in Palo Alto, California, who is also a member of the BabyCenter Medical Advisory Board, was not involved in the study but shared her opinion of the findings.

“Research shows that inadequate levels of serotonin found in the brain stem of 70% of babies who passed away from SIDS may make an infant more vulnerable,” DeZure told Fox News Digital.

Serotonin is important during sleep as it affects heart rate, breathing and blood pressure, the doctor explained.

Babies between 2 and 4 months old are most likely to experience SIDS, with 90% of cases occurring in infants under 6 months old, DeZure noted. 

“It’s important that research help address these health disparities in marginalized communities,” she said.

Safe sleep habits key to prevention

A SIDS diagnosis is made only when no other cause of death is identified after a full investigation, according to the Cedars Sinai website.

Although studies like this one point to possible causes of SIDS cases — including brain abnormalities, respiratory illness and heart function — there is no way to predict which babies might be more susceptible, experts say.

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While it’s recommended that babies sleep in the same room as parents or caregivers, they should not share the same bed, the AAP says.

Breastfeeding, giving babies pacifiers and having daily “tummy time” sessions have all been shown to lessen the risk of SIDS.

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“However, after 2001, SIDS cases in the U.S. remain the leading cause of death for infants under 1 year old, so there is a vital role for research that can help find additional ways to reduce the risk of SIDS,” she added.

If parents have questions about how to prevent SIDS, they should speak to their baby’s pediatrician or primary care physician for more information, said DeZure.

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