Peripheral arterial chemoreceptors and sudden infant death syndrome

Estelle B. Gauda, Elizabeth Cristofalo, Jeanne Nunez

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is the major cause of death in infants between 1 month and 1 year of age. Two particular concerns are that (1) premature or low birth weight (<2500-g) infants have a 2- to 40-fold greater risk of dying of SIDS (depending on the sleep position) than infants born at term and of normal birth weight, and that (2) the proportion of premature infants dying of SIDS has increased from 12 to 34% between 1988 and 2003. Hypo- and hypersensitivity of peripheral arterial chemoreceptors (PACs) may be one biological mechanism that could help to explain the epidemiological association between the increased incidence of SIDS in formerly premature infants. Because premature infants are often exposed to the extremes of oxygen stress during early postnatal development, they are more likely to have a maladaptive response of PACs later in their lives. As the first line of defense that mediates an increase in ventilation to a hypoxic challenge during wakefulness and sleep, PACs also mediate arousal responses during sleep in response to an asphyxial event that is often associated with upper airway obstruction. In most mammalian species, PACs are not fully developed at birth and thus are vulnerable to plasticity-induced changes mediated by environmental exposures such as the extremes of oxygen tension. Hypoxic or hyperoxic exposure during early postnatal development can lead to hyposensitive or hypersensitive PAC responses later in life. Although baseline chemoreceptor activity may not be the cause of an initial hypoxic or asphyxial event, the level of peripheral chemoreceptor drive does modulate the (1) time to arousal, (2) resumption of airflow during airway obstruction, (3) escape behaviors during rebreathing, and (4) cardiorespiratory responses that result from activation of the laryngeal chemoreflex. The laryngeal chemoreflex can be stimulated by reflux of gastric contents above the upper esophageal sphincter, or an increase in nasopharyngeal secretions from upper respiratory tract infections-events that contribute to some cases of SIDS. In this review, evidence is presented that both hypo- and hypersensitivity of PACs may be disadvantageous to the premature infant who is placed in an at risk environment for the occurrence of hypoxemia/asphyxia event thereby predisposing the infant to SIDS.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)162-170
Number of pages9
JournalRespiratory Physiology and Neurobiology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 1 2007


  • Control of breathing
  • Laryngeal chemoreflex
  • Premature infants
  • Sudden infant death syndrome
  • asphyxia

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Physiology
  • Pulmonary and Respiratory Medicine


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