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Safety reflex may be linked to cot death

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Scientists believe they may have identified a link between a protective reflex that stops us breathing when food “goes down the wrong way” and cot death.

The reflex, which regulates how we swallow and cough, is particularly important in babies because they are more prone to regurgitating liquids after feeding.

However, there is also a greater element of risk with regards to this reflex in babies because if breathing is stopped for a long time they will be in potentially life-threatening danger.

Two parts of the brain collaborate in order to control the reflex, which scientists believe may contribute towards Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (Sids).

Lead researcher Professor Paul Pilowsky, from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, said: “The closing of the airway in adults is only a small compromise as breathing is only stopped temporarily. But for babies the response has more radical implications, particularly if breathing stops for a long time, as they can’t take in oxygen or get rid of carbon dioxide.

“The timing of breathing and swallowing is exquisitely co-ordinated. We suspect that co-ordination of the two may be going awry in Sids, but to be sure of this, we need to know how the brain organises this response in the first place.”

Researchers used rats as test subjects and used electrical stimulation to mimic the brain and body’s response to a throat irritant.

By measuring neural activity linked to the reflex the team hopes to get a better understanding of what causes the brain to halt breathing for long periods.

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