Possible pathomechanisms of sudden infant death syndrome: key role of chronic hypoxia, infection/inflammation states, cytokine irregularities, and metabolic trauma in genetically predisposed infants

Am J Ther. Nov-Dec 2004;11(6):517-46. doi: 10.1097/01.mjt.0000140648.30948.bd.


Chronic hypoxia, viral infections/bacterial toxins, inflammation states, biochemical disorders, and genetic abnormalities are the most likely trigger of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Autopsy studies have shown increased pulmonary density of macrophages and markedly more eosinophils in the lungs accompanied by increased T and B lymphocytes. The elevated levels of immunoglobulins, about 20% more muscle in the pulmonary arteries, increased airway smooth muscle cells, and increased fetal hemoglobin and erythropoietin are evidence of chronic hypoxia before death. Other abnormal findings included mucosal immune stimulation of the tracheal wall, duodenal mucosa, and palatine tonsils, and circulating interferon. Low normal or higher blood levels of cortisol often with petechiae on intrathoracic organs, depleted maternal IgG antibodies to endotoxin core (EndoCAb) and early IgM EndoCAb triggered, partial deletions of the C4 gene, and frequent IL-10-592*A polymorphism in SIDS victims as well as possible hypoxia-induced decreased production of antiinflammatory, antiimmune, and antifibrotic cytokine IL-10, may be responsible for the excessive reactions to otherwise harmless infections. In SIDS infants, during chronic hypoxia and times of infection/inflammation, several proinflammatory cytokines are released in large quantities, sometimes also representing a potential source of tissue damage if their production is not sufficiently well controlled, eg, by pituitary adenylate cyclase-activating polypeptide (PACAP) and vasoactive intestinal polypeptide (VIP). These proinflammatory cytokines down-regulate gene expression of major cytochrome P-450 and/or other enzymes with the specific effects on mRNA levels, protein expression, and enzyme activity, thus affecting metabolism of several endogenous lipophilic substances, such as steroids, lipid-soluble vitamins, prostaglandins, leukotrienes, thromboxanes, and exogenous substances. In SIDS victims, chronic hypoxia, TNF-alpha and other inflammatory cytokines, and arachidonic acid (AA) as well as n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (FA), stimulated and/or augmented superoxide generation by polymorphonuclear leukocytes, which contributed to tissue damage. Chronic hypoxia, increased amounts of nonheme iron in the liver and adrenals of these infants, enhanced activity of CYP2C9 regarded as the functional source of reactive oxygen species (ROS) in some endothelial cells, and nicotine accumulation in tissues also intensified production of ROS. These increased quantities of proinflammatory cytokines, ROS, AA, and nitric oxide (NO) also resulted in suppression of many CYP450 and other enzymes, eg, phosphoenolpyruvate carboxykinase (PEPCK), an enzyme important in the metabolism of FA during gluconeogenesis and glyceroneogenesis. PEPCK deficit found in SIDS infants (caused also by vitamin A deficiency) and eventually enhanced by PACAP lipolysis of adipocyte triglycerides resulted in an increased FA level in blood because of their impaired reesterification to triacylglycerol in adipocytes. In turn, the overproduction and release of FA into the blood of SIDS victims could lead to the metabolic syndrome and an early phase of type 2 diabetes. This is probably the reason for the secondary overexpression of the hepatic CYP2C8/9 content and activity reported in SIDS infants, which intensified AA metabolism. Pulmonary edema and petechial hemorrhages often present in SIDS victims may be the result of the vascular leak syndrome caused by IL-2 and IFN-alpha. Chronic hypoxia with the release of proinflammatory mediators IL-1alpha, IL-1beta and IL-6, and overloading of the cardiovascular and respiratory systems due to the narrowing airways and small pulmonary arteries of these children could also contribute to the development of these abnormalities. Moreover, chronic hypoxia of SIDS infants induced also production of hypoxia-inducible factor 1alpha (HIF-1alpha), which stimulated synthesis and release of different growth factors by vascular endothelial cells and intensified subclinical inflammatory reactions in the central nervous system, perhaps potentiated also by PACAP and VIP gene mutations. These processes could lead to the development of brainstem gliosis and disorders in the release of neuromediators important for physiologic sleep regulation. All these changes as well as eventual PACAP abnormalities could result in disturbed homeostatic control of the cardiovascular and respiratory responses of SIDS victims, which, combined with the nicotine effects and metabolic trauma, finally lead to death in these often genetically predisposed children.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Bacterial Infections / complications
  • Central Nervous System / abnormalities
  • Chronic Disease
  • Cytokines / metabolism
  • Diphtheria-Tetanus-Pertussis Vaccine / adverse effects
  • Genetic Diseases, Inborn / complications
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease*
  • Humans
  • Hypoxia / complications
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Inflammation / complications
  • Metabolic Diseases / complications
  • Sudden Infant Death / etiology*
  • Sudden Infant Death / genetics
  • Tobacco Smoke Pollution / adverse effects
  • Virus Diseases / complications


  • Cytokines
  • Diphtheria-Tetanus-Pertussis Vaccine
  • Tobacco Smoke Pollution