SIDS remains one of the foremost causes of infant death in the United States. It has continued to remain a medical mystery despite other great medical advances. We are still unable to identify infants at risk until a fatal event occurs. Education has also not prevented SIDS. All groups of society are at risk although low socio-economic groups and Native American and African American populations are at most risk. Families are devastated by this phenomenon. Parents frequently second guess what happened and imagine what they could have done to prevent it. A non-smoking environment and laying the baby on its back are things that can help; yet even when addressed babies still die from SIDS.
In 2008, we identified that infants predisposed for SIDS have a hearing suppression in the right ear on their newborn hearing screen tests. We currently plan to undertake a project to explore this finding on a large scale in greater detail. It is our ultimate goal to demonstrate to policy makers that this simple procedure can be adapted to detect infants at risk of SIDS. The ramification is far reaching since it has never previously been possible to detect infants at risk immediately after birth and therefore the possibility to prevent a fatal event ahead of time. Our other avenue of research has identified that inner ear dysfunction may be the critical link as to why SIDS babies die. We found in our previous study published in Neuroscience, that inner ear cells (that sense hearing and balance) play a key role in the ability to survive and move away from a suffocating environment during sleep. Animals with inner ear dysfunction will remain in the suffocating environment while asleep drawing in ever increasing amounts of suffocating gas mixtures until they succumb. By comparison, animals without the inner ear damage will increase their breathing response and vigorously move away from the suffocating environment to access fresh air and survive. We have
also identified that animals with only one sided inner ear damage are at risk. The animals with inner ear dysfunction otherwise behave no differently in their waking behaviors and cannot be told apart from their siblings without inner ear damage. SIDS babies likewise are indistinguishable from other babies before they die. The current goal of this second avenue of study is to understand in detail the role of the inner ear in a fatal event and specifically the early identification of when this process is starting to occur so that we can implement an effective rescue strategy. We believe that the solution to SIDS is finally within reach. It is our sincere hope that our work is a bold step to solving a lifelong medical mystery once and for all and giving back to the world infants that die before their time. The identification of a key role for the inner ear in arousal and respiratory control has additional significant implications for breakthroughs in other disorders of breathing such as apnea of prematurity as well as sleep apnea in adulthood and childhood. We are looking for funding to continue this work so as to prevent further SIDS deaths in the future.