Cell death in the human infant central nervous system and in sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)

Natalie Ambrose, Michael Rodriguez, Karen A. Waters, Rita Machaalani*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)


The brainstem has been a focus of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) research with amassing evidence of increased neuronal apoptosis. The present study extends the scope of brain regions examined and determines associations with known SIDS risk factors. Immunohistochemical expression of cell death markers, active caspase-3 and TUNEL, was studied in 37 defined brain regions in infants (aged 1–12 months) who died suddenly and unexpectedly (SUDI). A semi-quantitative mean score of marker expression was derived for each region and scores compared between three SUDI subgroups: explained SUDI (eSUDI; n = 7), SIDS I (n = 8) and SIDS II (n = 13). In eSUDI, active caspase-3 scores were highest in several nuclei of the rostral medulla, and lowest in the hypothalamus and cerebellar grey matter (GM). TUNEL was highest in regions of the hippocampus and basal ganglia, and lowest in the thalamus and cerebellar GM. TUNEL scores were higher in SIDS II compared to eSUDI in the amygdala (p = 0.03) and 5/9 nuclei in the rostral medulla (p = 0.04 − 0.01), and higher in SIDS II compared to SIDS I in the amygdala (p < 0.01), putamen (p = 0.01), lentiform nucleus (p = 0.03) and parietal (p = 0.03) and posterior frontal (p = 0.02) cortex. Active caspase-3 was greater in the hypoglossal nucleus (p = 0.03) of SIDS I compared to eSUDI infants. Co-sleeping, cigarette smoke exposure and the presence of an upper respiratory tract infection in SIDS infants was associated with differences in marker expression. This study affirms the sensitivity of the brainstem medulla to cell death in SIDS, and highlights the amygdala as a new region of interest.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)46-61
Number of pages16
Issue number1-2
Publication statusPublished - 15 Feb 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • Apoptosis
  • Caspase-3
  • Postnatal brain
  • Sudden unexpected death in infancy


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