Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Scientists link serotonin deficit to SIDS

Despite the "back to sleep" campaign and increased awareness on how to prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS, it's still the number one cause of death of babies in the US during their first year of life. A recent study may shed some light on why certain babies may be more susceptible to dying of SIDS.

According to Dr. Hannah Kinney, who conducted the research on the brain stems of 41 babies who had died of SIDS, serotonin levels in 35 of the SIDS babies were 26% lower than in all babies who had not died of SIDS. The article states:

Kinney had previously found differences related to serotonin receptors in SIDS babies' brain stems, but it was not clear whether there was too much or too little of the neurotransmitter that sends signals between nerve cells. An unanswered question was whether the serotonin was there and the babies' brains were unable to use it.

Marian Willinger, who is responsible for the SIDS research program at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, called Kinney's results on a serotonin deficit important.

"I think this is an important advance in our understanding of what's wrong with the brain stem of many babies who die from SIDS," she said in an interview. "It helps us ... to understand the pathophysiology, how the baby dies, because we don't really know."

Kinney said the goal is to identify the infants who have this problem.

"We are closer than we have been, but we still have quite a journey to go, to test and then identify it in the living infant and then to have a treatment for it," she said. "Those are long-term goals and we know we are years away from them."
So what does this have to do with breastfeeding? In a 1997 article, Dr. James Prescott talks about the role of breastfeeding and breast milk in brain development. He states:
"There is another neurobiological mechanism involved in the development of brain serotonin–tryptophan–a precursor amino acid essential for the development of brain serotonin which is richly present in colostrum and breastmilk but absent in formula milk. Thus, two distinct and different neurophysiological mechanisms have been identified that contributes to deficits in brain serotonin: a) failed physical affectional bonding in the maternal-infant/child relationship (sensory processes); and b) the amino acid tryptophan present in colostrum and breast milk but absent in formula milk (neurochemical processes)."

It's interesting stuff and definitely worth reading. I am always surprised that there are very few mentions of breastfeeding as a way to reduce the risk of SIDS, yet there seems to be a lot of research to suggest that breastfed babies die of SIDS at a much lower rate. I think this serotonin finding is just another example of that. I'd be curious to know how many of the 35 babies whose serotonin levels were much lower than normal were also being breastfed.

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