But while the study points to a promising direction for future research, it’s not a “panacea,” experts say. “There’s no certainty at all,” Rachel Moon, a researcher at the University of Virginia who studies sudden infant death syndrome, said in an email to The Verge. She said the surge of interest around the research is understandable, but no need.
Sudden infant death syndrome refers to the sudden, often unexplained death of a baby one year old or younger. It’s largely a mystery, and doctors don’t have a good answer to why it happens. Parents of babies who die unexplained are often the focus of suspicion, which can make parents feel more guilty and bereaved than they already do. For the past few decades, medical research on SIDS has largely focused on prevention: There is a link between how babies sleep and SIDS, so parents are encouraged to keep babies on their backs and on solid surfaces.
But even with the Safe Sleep campaign, which has effectively reduced infant deaths since the late 1980s, SIDS mortality rates in the U.S. have remained the same for years. With no good explanation for the cause of death, parents of young children often spend months worrying about this happening to their babies.
That’s probably why the new study has gotten such a big hit on social media. Its discovery was also overhyped by earlier reports claiming it showed a clear cause of SIDS. This is common in scientific research, which is sometimes described as more sensational than it really is by press releases, researchers or superficial reports. The problem creates unrealistic expectations for solutions and undermines trust in science more generally.
Take a closer look at last week’sEBioMedicineThe SIDS study in the journal , it turned out to be very small – it included blood samples from 67 dead and 10 surviving infants. The analysis revealed that infants who died from SIDS had lower levels of an enzyme called butyrylcholinesterase, which researchers believe is involved in neurological function. This does not necessarily mean that the enzyme is responsible for SIDS or plays a role in infant death. And, even though the levels of the enzyme were statistically different between the two groups of infants, there was overlap between them. That would make it difficult to design an accurate blood test to check babies for levels of enzymes linked to SIDS, Moon said.
Scientific studies alone rarely provide definitive answers, especially for complex questions like SIDS. Science is an iterative process, with research evolving over time. Research into the more fundamental biological causes of a devastating problem like SIDS is important to help dispel stigma from grieving parents and help provide potential solutions. Any new findings that point in a promising direction are helpful. But it’s also important to be clear about what the limitations of any particular study are. In this case, there is still a long way to go before a screening test for SIDS is possible.
Alison Jacobson, chief executive of First Candle, a nonprofit that focuses on SIDS, said in a statement: “This is a step forward and for which we should be optimistic, but it’s not the whole answer. As bereaved parents, we understand those How parents whose babies died of this mysterious disease are desperate for answers, while new parents want reassurance that it doesn’t happen to their children. We pray that it will happen one day, but it’s the case today it’s not true.”