Serotonin and SIDS

A study by Boston Children's Hospital published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association seems to have found a correlation between serotonin levels and SIDS. Babies who have died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome appear to have lower than normal levels of serotonin in their brains. Since serotonin regulates many processes within the body, including sleep and wakefulness, a deficiency of this chemical would suggest that these SIDS babies were unable to recognize warning signs and wake themselves up when they entered a situation where oxygen levels were decreased (such as during stomach sleeping when they are more likely to work themselves into a corner or become surrounded by too much fluffy bedding).

Serotonin is a widespread neurotransmitter, contributing to many processes other than sleep including appetite, learning ability and - probably most famously - mood. While there is currently no way to test if a baby has low serotonin levels it makes me wonder how many babies who died of SIDS would  have continued to have serotonin-related issues later in life. Had they survived, would they have been plagued by learning disabilities or depression or would the body have found a way to right itself over time? How many people who suffer from depression now had a serotonin deficiency right from the beginning as an infant and were just lucky enough to escape SIDS?

As tempting as this research is, even if we could test a baby's serotonin levels we likely wouldn't be able to do anything to change the situation medically. Although parents naturally would want a "cure" it is highly unlikely this research would be able to provide one. What could we do? Prescribe antidepressants? Not a healthy choice when you consider the extreme delicacy of an infant brain that is growing and wiring itself together at the fastest rate it ever will, making connections that will last throughout it's life. Considering the side effects that these drugs have in adults alone, the result could be devastating on such a malleable infant brain. Besides, there is rarely "one cause" of any condition and even it is serotonin in this case, this neurotransmitter affects so many other life processes that to alter it in the hopes of solving one problem could cause ten other much more complicated issues. The most we could hope is that parents might be able to receive a SIDS-probability "heads up" in the future, but it is still an interesting find and gives us a bit more insight into this baffling condition.

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