Background: Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is in a difficult position between the legal and medical systems. In the United Kingdom, prosecutors have for years applied the simple rule that 1 unexpected death in a family is a tragedy, 2 are suspicious, and 3 are murder. However, it seems that the pendulum has now swung to the opposite extreme; mutations or polymorphisms with unclear biological significance are accepted in court as possible causes of death. This development makes research on genetic predisposing factors for SIDS increasingly important, from the standpoint of the legal protection of infants. The genetic component of sudden infant death can be divided into 2 categories, ie (1) mutations that give rise to genetic disorders that constitute the cause of death by themselves and (2) polymorphisms that might predispose infants to death in critical situations. Distinguishing between these 2 categories is essential, and cases in which a mutation causing a lethal genetic disorder is identified should be diagnosed not as SIDS but as explained death.
Genetic alterations that may cause sudden infant death: Deficiencies in fatty acid metabolism have been extensively studied in cases of SIDS, and by far the most well-investigated mutation is the A985G mutation in the medium-chain acyl-CoA dehydrogenase (MCAD) gene, which is the most prevalent mutation causing MCAD deficiency. However, <1% of sudden infant death cases investigated have this mutation, and findings of biochemical profiles seen in specific fatty acid oxidation disorders in a number of such cases emphasize the importance of investigating fatty acid oxidation disorders other than MCAD deficiency. Severe acute hypoglycemia may cause sudden death among infants, but only rare novel polymorphisms have been found when key proteins involved in the regulation of blood glucose levels are investigated in cases of SIDS. The long QT syndrome (LQTS) is another inherited condition proposed as the cause of death in some cases of sudden infant death. The LQTS is caused by mutations in genes encoding cardiac ion channels, and mutations in the genes KVLQT1 and SCNA5 have been identified in cases initially diagnosed as SIDS, in addition to several polymorphisms in these 2 genes and in the HERG gene. In addition, genetic risk factors for thrombosis were investigated in a small number of SIDS cases; the study concluded that venous thrombosis is not a major cause of sudden infant death.
Gene polymorphisms that may predispose infants to sudden infant death under certain circumstances: Many SIDS victims have an activated immune system, which may indicate that they are vulnerable to simple infections. One reason for such vulnerability may be partial deletions of the complement component 4 gene. In cases of SIDS, an association between slight infections before death and partial deletions of the complement component 4 gene has been identified, which may indicate that this combination represents increased risk of sudden infant death. There have been a few studies investigating HLA-DR genotypes and SIDS, but no association has been demonstrated. The most common polymorphisms in the interleukin-10 (IL-10) gene promoter have been investigated in SIDS cases, and the ATA/ATA genotype has been reported to be associated with both SIDS and infectious death. The findings may indicate that, in a given situation, an infant with an unfavorable IL-10 genotype may exhibit aberrant IL-10 production, and they confirm the assumption that genes involved in the immune system are of importance with respect to sudden unexpected infant death. Another gene that has been investigated is the serotonin transporter gene, and an association between the long alleles of this gene and SIDS has been demonstrated. Serotonin influences a broad range of physiologic systems, as well as the interactions between the immune and nervous systems, and findings of decreased serotonergic binding in parts of the brainstem, together with the findings in the serotonin transporter gene, may indicate that serotonin plays a regulatory role in SIDS. It has also been speculated that inadequate thermal regulation is involved in SIDS, but investigations of genes encoding heat-shock proteins and genes encoding proteins involved in lipolysis from brown adipose tissue have not found evidence of linkages between common polymorphisms in these genes and SIDS. A number of human diseases are attributable to mutations in mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), and there are several reasons to think that mtDNA mutations also are involved in SIDS. Both a higher substitution frequency and a different substitution pattern in the HVR-I region of mtDNA have been reported in SIDS cases, compared with control cases. A number of coding region mtDNA mutations have also been reported, but many are found only in 1 or a few SIDS cases, and, to date, no predominant mtDNA mutation has been found to be associated with SIDS.
Conclusions: All mutations giving rise to metabolic disorders known to be associated with life-threatening events are possible candidates for genes involved in cases of sudden infant death, either as a cause of death or as a predisposing factor. It is necessary to distinguish between lethal mutations leading to diseases such as MCAD and LQTS, and polymorphisms (for instance, in the IL-10 gene and mtDNA) that are normal gene variants but might be suboptimal in critical situations and thus predispose infants to sudden infant death. It is unlikely that one mutation or polymorphism is the predisposing factor in all SIDS cases. However, it is likely that there are "SIDS genes" operating as a polygenic inheritance predisposing infants to sudden infant death, in combination with environmental risk factors. For genetically predisposed infants, a combination of, for instance, a slight infection, a prone sleeping position, and a warm environment may trigger a vicious circle with a death mechanism, including hyperthermia, irregular breathing, hypoxemia, and defective autoresuscitation, eventually leading to severe hypoxia, coma, and death.