A Surprising Brain Chemical Has Been Linked To SIDS

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS, remains a very real fear for new parents. It isn't just the concept of your child possibly dying, it's the fact that a cloud of mystery continues to hover over the cause of SIDS. Despite a decline in recent decades, SIDS remains the number one cause of infant mortality in children under the age of one. Interestingly, a new study recently linked a brain chemical to SIDS, and it's not what you might expect.

According to a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, high serum serotonin has been linked to a large number of SIDS cases. This important brain chemical affects almost every part of our bodies, as Healthline pointed out:

Serotonin impacts every part of your body, from your emotions to your motor skills. Serotonin is considered a natural mood stabilizer. It’s the chemical that helps with sleeping, eating, and digesting. Serotonin also helps:
  • reduce depression
  • regulate anxiety
  • heal wounds
  • stimulate nausea
  • maintain bone health

The study authors looked at 61 babies who had died from SIDS and found that one third of them had higher than average levels of serotonin in their blood. While this might seem like discouraging news, considering the importance of serotonin, it could actually help clear away some of the mystery surrounding SIDS in the future.

There are several key factors which make pinpointing the actual cause of SIDS difficult; for one thing, some infant deaths which are determined to be SIDS-related can frequently be traced back to unsafe sleep practices. Babies should never be placed on their stomachs to sleep because they can suffocate. These deaths are not technically SIDS, because there is an explanation behind them. Another factor that makes studying SIDS difficult, according to epidimiologist Peter Blair from the University of Bristol in England, is the low number of cases. He told The Atlantic:

The cost of testing and the rarity of the event are prohibitive to screening at the moment. If we can improve identification of a small group at high risk, then maybe.

The reality is, the link between elevated levels of serotonin in SIDS babies is just the first step in a long journey. Because the study authors (who received funding from NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to perform the study) were only looking for serotonin in the infants, it doesn't definitely explain SIDS. Nor does it explain why premature babies and baby boys are more susceptible to SIDS than girls and full term infants, or why black and Native American babies are twice as likely to die from SIDS than white, Hispanic, and Asian babies.

Still, it's a step in the right direction. This information will give doctors a better understanding of potential causes of SIDS, and hopefully a future blood test will prevent more infants from dying needlessly.