Does One Doctor Have the Cure for SIDS?

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One pediatric anesthesiologist is working on a surprising, potential cause of SIDS. (Photo: Getty Images).

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)— a medical phenomenon that causes 4,000 deaths per year and has stumped doctors and devastated families for decades — remains a mystery to this day. But one Seattle doctor says he may have identified the cause of SIDS.

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Daniel Rubens, a pediatric anesthesiologist at Seattle Children’s, is working on research to show that SIDS is associated with damage to the inner ear. “We are studying infants that look and seem healthy and who sleep in safe conditions,” he tells Yahoo Parenting. “But for some reason, these babies die in their sleep and an autopsy and investigation has determined no obvious cause of death.” Rubens hypothesizes that the portion of the inner ear that controls balance and movement is dysfunctional in babies who die of SIDS. And for whatever reason, when these babies experience a build up of carbon dioxide and a lack of oxygen (which, for example, can occur with the common cold), they lack the ability to rouse themselves awake and escape the effects of the deadly gases.

Pediatric anesthesiologist Daniel Rubens. (Photo: The Seattle Times).

In other words, a healthy baby without prior existing inner-ear damage won’t be affected by the build-up of carbon dioxide and lack of oxygen. Rubens hopes to be able to create a test that will help parents identify inner-ear damage, and thus take special precautions to avoid SIDS.

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Babies who die of SIDS usually do so while sleeping in their beds, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The cause of death is unexplained but risk factors include bed-sharing, soft bedding, being exposed to second-hand smoke, or sleeping in overheating conditions. SIDS typically occurs with babies under the age of 1 who lack the ability to readjust themselves should they struggle to breathe. It’s for this reason that in 1994, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advised parents to place their babies to sleep on their backs (not their stomachs), alone in a crib with no bedding. As a result, SIDS rates plummeted by 50 percent. In December, the AAP published a study that reemphasized bedding as a “recognized risk factor” for SIDS, after discovering that 50 percent of parents use unsafe bedding in cribs.

Rubens’ work is a continuation of research conducted by the Rhode Island Department of Health, which found that babies who died of SIDS all had consistent damage to their inner ears. For his study, Rubens and his team damaged the inner ears of mice, put them to sleep with light anesthesia and exposed them to a gas mixture similar to one experienced by babies who die of SIDS. The mice with inner ear damage were difficult or impossible to wake up.

Right now, Rubens is trying to raise money to fund a large-scale study — about $100K— to pay a research assistant and then for his study, he’ll include 100 cases of babies who died of SIDS, along with healthy babies with whom to compare them. If his study gets off the ground, Rubens aims to adapt the current hearing test administered to newborns in hospitals to include his research on inner ear dysfunction.

“We don’t have a way to detect whether a baby is prone to SIDS, but our hope that we can help prevent SIDS from birth,” says Rubens. “The prospect is exciting.”

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