Babies and children * Healthy living

Clue to cot death found

Clue to cot death found Linked to faulty communication in the brain

Cot deaths could be caused by an abnormality in the regions of the brain involved in breathing and swallowing, a study has found.

Scientists have identified two areas of the brain that usually work together to control breathing and swallowing, which enable us to breathe without choking.

Faulty communication between these areas of the brain could be behind sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), also known as cot death.

Normally, if food "goes down the wrong way" the brain triggers a protective reflex response to stop breathing and prevent the food from reaching the lungs. The reflex response also brings the vocal chords together to initiate coughing and swallowing. Breathing then starts again as soon as the offending material is coughed up.

This reflex response is particularly important in babies as they tend to regurgitate liquids after feeding and saliva can pool in their throats. It is also risky – as breathing stops, blood oxygen levels can drop to dangerously low levels.

To understand how the central nervous system controls breathing and swallowing, the team used a rat model to recreate how the brain responds to a throat irritant, using electrical stimulation to trigger the reflex response.

They then measured levels of neurotransmitters which indicate how different regions of the brain function.

Professor Paul Pilowsky, who led the research, said: "Until now, the centres in the brain that coordinate breathing and swallowing were poorly understood, but our research has finally teased apart the two mechanisms in the brain, demonstrating how they work together in the presence of an irritant.

"The timing of breathing and swallowing is exquisitely coordinated. We suspect that coordination of the two may be going awry in SIDS, but to be sure of this, we need to know how the brain organises this response in the first place."

This article was published on Fri 1 April 2011

Image © Nixie -

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