Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is devastating, and about 3,400 babies a year die due to SIDS. There are no immediate or obvious causes of death, and parents are left with empty arms and endless questions. An Australian researcher who lost her own child to SIDS now believes she and her team have identified the 'cause' of SIDS, and is hopeful the research will lead to screening in the future. Many are skeptical, though, and caution that this identified biomarker may be just one piece of the puzzle.

Australian researchers believe they've discovered a solid cause that will help us understand the questions behind the cause of SIDS, and possibly lead to screening in the future to prevent deaths. Led by Dr. Carmel Huntington, who lost her son Damien to SIDS 29 years ago, and set to publish in the The Lancet’s eBioMedicine June edition, the study is groundbreaking. When Dr. Harrington's son died, she quit her job as a lawyer and went back to her previous career as a research biochemist, dedicating her work to finding the cause of Damien's death.

The study took place at The Children's Hospital Westmead in Sydney, Australia and looked at dried blood samples of 722 babies. Of those babies, 67 died from SIDS. The samples were collected as part of a newborn screening program and the research team also looked at samples of babies who shared the same date of birth and gender as one of the babies who had SIDS listed as the cause of their death.

What Dr. Harrington's team found was that it seems there is a malfunction in babies who die of SIDS that causes them not to startle or wake if they stop breathing while sleeping. No one has really disputed that belief, but until now, no one could pinpoint the cause behind that malfunction. Dr. Harrington's research team believes that the enzyme butyrylcholinesterase (BChE) is the missing piece. BChE is an enzyme that's key to our brain's arousal pathway, and the researchers discovered that that enzyme was significantly lower in the babies who died from SIDS than it was in the other newborns.

Harrington said that a baby's powerful mechanism to let us know they're not happy typically is aroused and activated when faced with a life-threatening situation like difficulty breathing during sleep. The team's research suggests that some babies don't have the same robust arousal responses, and this could be connected to lower BChE.

BChE is an enzyme of the cholinergic system, and that's part of our body's autonomic system. This controls functions those 'automatic' like breathing and blood pressure. The authors believe that more research is needed to determine whether BChE tests could be created to identify and prevent SIDS in the future. Harrington believes that now knowing BChE is involved means we can change outcomes for babies in the future and potentially eliminate SIDS altogether.

Some clinicians and parents of children who died from SIDS caution too much celebration in the findings. The limitations of the study included the blood samples being over two years old, so findings were not from fresh blood. Additionally, coroners' diagnoses were used over autopsy findings and that could affect results.

First Candle is a national organization that focuses on eliminating sleep-related infant deaths, as well as supporting families who are dealing with life after SIDS. Allison Jacobson is the CEO and said that while the progress is encouraging and we should be optimistic, it isn't an entire answer. Further, the possibility of a 'test' screening for SIDS may mean that parents could have false senses of security that might lead to adopting other unsafe sleeping practices that have been shown to be contributors to SIDS.

More, some mothers of babies who died from SIDS say this is not the 'first time' an 'answer' for SIDS has come out, and they doubt it will be the last as the very nature of SIDS lends itself to so many unanswered questions and variables.