Dr Howard, a junior doctor at King’s College Hospital, is currently performing research into a possible link between Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (the sudden and unexplained death of an infant younger than one year old) and carbon dioxide (CO2). The exact causes of Cot Death (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) are still unknown but it is thought that certain environmental factors, such as the mother smoking whilst the foetus is in the womb and the baby being in a smoking household once born, increase the risk of dying prematurely.
Increased CO2 levels make the blood more acidic and normally specialised cells in the brain detect the CO2 molecules, tailoring the breathing rate accordingly, which in this case means speeding it up so that more carbon dioxide is expelled from the lungs and more oxygen is taken in. However, babies that suddenly die may have a problem with the parts of the brain that detect CO2, meaning that the CO2 level goes up but the brain cells don’t respond to it, so the baby dies when the acidity causes injury to body cells, or when the respiratory rate does not change accordingly.
It was previously thought that brain cells responded to the acid in the blood and that only the cells in the brain stem carried out this function. However, it is being discovered that not only are neurones (nerve cells) in parts of the brain other than the brainstem involved, but also that they are responding to the actual molecule of CO2, rather than pH (blood acidity). Therefore, Dr Howard is looking at where the areas of neurones are that contribute to the response to carbon dioxide as well as what they specifically respond to.
Dr Howard carries out searches of current published papers to obtain background knowledge on her research topic. She also compiles information from current medical journals and research in order to say what the latest thinking is. Her aim is to publish her completed paper on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in a journal so that the public and other scientific professionals can access a up-to-date summary of the current research into Cot Death.
I was interested in writing about Dr Howard’s research because I wanted to find out more about the dangers of having an excess of carbon dioxide in your blood, despite it being a vital gas for our survival; it truly lives up to the saying that ‘too much of anything is bad’! What’s more, it was completely new to me that failure to respond to surplus CO2 could be one of the causes of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, which therefore made it a fascinating possibility to delve into. Through producing this summary of Dr Howard’s research, I have gained a richer understanding of the condition, which I hope you will too by reading it.
Lottricia Millett, Student Advisory Panel member, Burntwood School