WEDNESDAY, Dec. 8 (HealthDay News) -- Sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS, has for years had a reputation as a mysterious and terrifying killer of newborns.
But medical researchers now think they have cracked the secret of what causes babies to die of SIDS, an advance that could save hundreds of lives each year.
Doctors have found that babies who die of SIDS tend to have significantly lower amounts of serotonin than babies who die of other causes. Serotonin is a hormonal neurotransmitter closely linked to many of the body's vital functions, including the sleeping cycle.
A lack of serotonin is suspected to hamper a sleeping baby's ability to wake up when its safety is threatened by a lack of oxygen or some other health hazard, said Dr. Rachel Y. Moon, a pediatrician, SIDS researcher and associate chief of the division of general pediatrics and community health at the Goldberg Center for Community Pediatric Health at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
"We think a lot of it has to do with arousal, and how babies can wake up when they are asleep," Moon said. "If you have a baby who gets into a compromised situation and they are becoming hypoxic, there are some babies who are sleeping so deeply or have an arousal defect that they can't wake up."
SIDS is the leading cause of death for babies between 1 month and 1 year of age, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Most SIDS deaths occur between the ages of 2 months and 4 months, and more than 2,200 U.S. infants die of SIDS every year.
These deaths are sudden and unexplained, even after doctors perform an autopsy and review the infants' health. Since most of these deaths happen when the babies are sleeping, SIDS is known to many as "crib death."
Researchers believe that some sort of birth defect leads to the serotonin deficit in some babies, said Laura Reno, vice preside
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