Brief seizures, including muscle spasms, may be a possible cause behind unexpected deaths in young children, which usually occur during sleep, a study has revealed. Experts estimate that more than 3,000 families in the United States lose an infant or young child unexpectedly and without explanation each year.
Most cases of what is referred to as sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS, are infants, but 400 or more cases involve children age 1 and older and are called sudden unexplained death in infants (SUDC). More than half of these children are children.
In the study, researchers used extensive medical record analysis and video evidence donated by families to document the unexplained deaths of seven children between the ages of 1 and 3 that were potentially attributable to seizures.
The seizures lasted less than 60 seconds and occurred within exactly 30 minutes of each infant’s death, said researchers at New York University (NYU) Langone Health. Published in the journal Neurology, the study found that five of the seven recordings were running nonstop during that time, and direct sound and visual motion indicated that a seizure was occurring.
The remaining two recordings were triggered by sound or motion, but only one suggested that a muscle spasm, a sign of a seizure, had occurred. Also, only one child had a documented previous history of febrile seizures. All children in the study had previously undergone an autopsy that revealed no specific cause of death.
“Our study, although small, provides the first direct evidence that seizures may be responsible for some sudden deaths in children, which do not normally occur during sleep,” said lead investigator Laura Gold, a research assistant professor at NYU Langone.
Gould lost her daughter Maria to SUDC in 1997 at 15 months old. He noted that if not for the video evidence, the death investigation would not have seized it.
“The results of this study show that seizures are much more common than patients’ medical history suggests, and further research is needed to determine the potential for sleep-related deaths in children and whether seizures are occurring more frequently in infants, older children, and adults.” NYU Langone’s Department of Neurology Professor investigator and neurologist Orin Devinsky said.
Devinsky added that “seizures may be the ‘smoking gun’ that medical science is looking for to understand why these children die.
“Studying this phenomenon can provide critical insights into many other deaths, including SIDS and epilepsy,” he noted.