Last week, several headlines and social media posts announced that scientists had finally found the “cause” of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Unfortunately, the reality is a bit more complicated. While the research could one day lead to important discoveries in predicting or treating this devastating syndrome, the findings haven’t changed the rules of the game as originally portrayed — at least not yet.
study was published earlier this month in the journal eBioMedicine. Researchers in Australia compared babies thought to have died of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) to control groups of infants and infants who died of other causes, using blood samples taken from newborns as part of a screening programme. SIDS is Is characterized by Because a child younger than a year dies without cause, often while sleeping. The team looked at overall levels of the protein with an enzyme called butyrylcholinesterase (BChE).
Among other things, BChE plays a role in regulating the autonomic nervous system, the nerves that unconsciously manage many of the body’s functions, including breathing and heart rate. Many researchers, these authors Inclusive, hypothesize that autonomic system dysfunction could be an underlying cause of SIDS. If so, they also speculate, lower-than-normal levels of BChE could be a sign – or even a possible trigger – of this dysfunction. Sure enough, the team found that babies who died of SIDS had significantly lower levels of BChE soon after birth than the control group.
The first media headlines on the study skin Because it accurately identified the “cause of infant death syndrome due to sudden infant death syndrome”. thus, Twitter users were describing the study as finding the real cause of SIDS. But while this finding is important, its findings have been exaggerated and mischaracterized, according to Jonathan Maron, a bioethicist at Harvard Medical School. Marron is not an expert on SIDS specifically, but he’s also a pediatrician and clinical researcher.
“Science is gradually advancing. This study is an interesting and promising development of a devastating and poorly understood entity, SIDS. However, it is not a magic bullet, and today we cannot say for sure that we have found a cure for SIDS,” Maron told Gizmodo in a letter.
Every study comes with its limitations, and this one is no exception. First, the sample size is very small, as only 26 infants who died from SIDS were included in the study. Fortunately, SIDS is a rare condition, so the numbers are understandable, but this means that any findings should be viewed with extra caution until they are validated by further research. The study also only found an association between BChE levels and SIDS, not a cause-and-effect relationship. Low BChE may be a signal or driver of SIDS risk, but this research alone cannot tell us that. And even if this connection is as important as we hope, it will take years to capitalize on it, such as finding a safe treatment that can increase BChE levels or prevent SIDS.
Maron notes that the study’s authors, while understandably enthusiastic about their work, were more cautious about the implications of their research than the early headlines and subsequent conversations on surrounding social media.
“I’m not sure why — it could be an example for media report writers who don’t understand the work and its limitations, but it could also be a representation of the fact that sensational stories and sensational headlines lead to clicks,” Maron said. Subsequent articles have since become more open about the study. reservationsSince then, at least one early article has been published updated also.
Perhaps it wasn’t just excitement or poor scientific knowledge that drove early coverage of this research, though. Historically, SIDS has been embroiled in much stigmatization, with fathers – especially mothers – often being blamed for the death of their children. Other times, it was life-saving interventions like childhood vaccinations Scapegoat By antivaxxers and supportive or naive media. In several tweets discussing the research, there was a common thread among readers hoping that this stigma would finally go away, as the “real cause” turned out to be something completely out of anyone’s control.
“We are uncomfortable with uncertainty — and perhaps even more so when it comes to something as important and heart-wounding as the death of a child. Finding one cause, one answer, that is attractive,” Maron said. They have found the cause of SIDS.”
Another compelling part of the narrative is that the study’s lead author, Carmel Harrington, Lost her baby to SIDS. It was this tragic loss that motivated her research focus. (Gizmodo has reached out to Harrington for comment, but has yet to hear back.)
The work of Harrington and her team could still be formidable as the early headlines proclaimed, one day. Even if we find an obvious cause for SIDS, though, it won’t necessarily change the advice new parents routinely get on how to reduce the risk of SIDS for their children. Most importantly, research has shown that safe sleep practices, such as keeping infants on their backs and avoiding overheating, can reduce the risk of SIDS. And after public health campaigns focused on these practices and other advice that began in the 1990s, annually rates Small island developing states in the United States and elsewhere have continued to decline over time.
Of course, this is not the first piece of science that is overstated by journalists or misunderstood by readers. While no one is completely immune from bias, this episode should remind people to watch flashy science headlines and make sure they get the most context for the research in question. Maron notes that journalists should always be careful about what they report to the world.
“I hope that journalists realize the responsibility they bear and the impact they can have on the public,” he said.