Australian sleep expert Carmel Harrington has devoted decades of her scientific work to researching sudden infant death syndrome.
She was driven by a stroke of fate: in 1991, shortly before his second birthday, she lost her son Damien to sudden infant death. A hitherto inexplicable phenomenon. Out of nowhere, little children stop breathing – and die.
Some 30 years later, she has made the scientific breakthrough that could potentially help babies at risk: Harrington and her research team have identified the first biochemical marker that indicates a baby’s susceptibility to cot death while still alive.
Important messenger substance in the brain
The study, published in the journal “eBioMedicine”, found that the concentration of the enzyme butyrylcholinesterase (BChE) is a possible reason for sudden infant death. The enzyme is a messenger substance in the brain that makes children wake up when they stop breathing.
Harrington found that the BChE concentration in babies who died from SIDS was significantly lower than in living controls and other deceased babies.
“Babies have a very powerful mechanism for letting us know when they’re not happy. When a baby is faced with a life-threatening situation, such as shortness of breath while sleeping because they are lying on their stomach, they will typically wake up and cry,” Harrington said, according to the Sydney Children’s Hospital Network. Her research now shows that some babies don’t respond as strongly to this excitement. “This has long been suspected, but until now we didn’t know what caused the lack of arousal.”
Test to show risk
Harrington now wants to work on a blood test for babies to determine the risk of sudden infant death syndrome. “Its a lot to do! This is just the end of the beginning. We have to understand a lot more, develop quick tests and a treatment method,” she says to “Bild”. “It’s great that we can now work with live babies – and make sure they stay alive.”
After the death of her son, Harrington changed her life completely. “I have a degree in biochemistry, but then went on to study law because it’s quite difficult to get adequate funding for scientific research in Australia.”
Still practicing law, she initially spent a lot of time doing her own research and speaking to experts in the wake of the tragedy. “I realized that no one could tell me why this happened. There were no answers.”
There are so many cases in Switzerland
Eventually, fueled by Damien’s fate, Harrington made it his mission to return to university to earn a PhD in infant sleep so she could focus on the phenomenon of cot death.
Today, Harrington is a renowned sleep expert and works with the University of Sydney and Westmead Children’s Hospital to fund related research.
The number of cases of sudden infant death has already been significantly reduced in recent decades by consistently recommending that parents put their babies to bed on their backs. In 1995, there were still 54 cases of sudden infant death in Switzerland. In 2019, according to the Federal Statistical Office, there were only seven.
Taboo subject early infant death: “I encourage the parents to get to know the child”(02:49)