Assoc Prof Dr Daniel Rubens has said that Sudden Infant Death Syndrome might be linked to damage to the inner ear.

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) may be linked to the build up of carbon dioxide and existing inner ear damage according to a new study in the journal Neuroscience. Author Dr. Daniel Rubens, an anesthesiologist and researcher at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, says the finding could help researchers understand the sequence of events and risk factors that lead to SIDS deaths.

“This is potentially an important breakthrough in understanding the biological underpinnings of what may be causing SIDS,” Rubens said. “We found that exposure to increasing levels of carbon dioxide and inner ear damage in mice resulted in a lack of movement toward safety and fresh air during sleep. We want to fine tune this discovery and study the connection to carbon dioxide in more detail.”

He cites a 2011 study that he co-authored:

Mice with inner ear injury (n=60) displayed a significantly diminished hypercapnic ventilatory response (HCVR). This contrasted with the normal HCVR seen in control mice that had not undergone tympanic injections (n=30), controls that received tympanic injections with saline (n=5), and controls that had gentamicin administered systemically (n=5). In response to inspired CO(2), the mean respiratory frequency of control mice increased by an average of 50% over their baseline values for both parts of the experiment. In contrast, the ear-damaged experimental group mean values increased by only three breaths per minute (bpm) (2%) in the first experiment and by 28 bpm (11%) in the second experiment. Inner ear damage significantly reduces the respiratory response to CO(2) inhalation. In addition to the established role of the inner ear organ in hearing and balance, this alludes to an unidentified function of the inner ear and its interconnecting neuronal pathways in respiratory regulation.

A 2013 review, The physiological determinants of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome cites the above paper:

although perinatal hearing/vestibular impairment by itself may not be robust predictor of SIDS vulnerability, there is an emerging possibility that hearing/vestibular function may be impaired in SIDS vulnerable infants. However, the precise role of the VN in central chemosensitivity and SIDS remains an open issue.

I am skeptical that the inner ear plays a large role in regulating respiration.

  • 5
    What's to debunk? The study starts with an observation (patients with poor response to CO2 often have a particular kind of inner ear damage.) The mouse experiment shows the same effect. The second study you link to goes on to say that that particular kind of ear damage results in lower activity in a brain area that is involved in breath regulation, and says that the connection isn't clear and that more study is needed. Nobody says your ears are part of your respiratory system.
    – JRE
    Oct 10 '19 at 5:55
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    You are also missing a link for the "inner ear is part of the respiratory system and without it we will die" part. Neither of the papers you linked to says that.
    – JRE
    Oct 10 '19 at 6:08
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    -1 because for the same reason as @JRE. The study suggests the inner ear has a role to detect too much CO2 being inhaled; nothing like the claim being questioned. Oct 10 '19 at 9:31
  • 2
    I have Meniere's and having my vestbular system removed in both ears next week, so I want the idea that the inner ear is a big part of your respiratory system (it is 53% responsible for respiratory drive and without the vestibular part of the inner ear people will have fatal breathing irregularities) debunked. The papers themselves do not mention SIDs but this was mentioned in press releases after the studies were done.
    – user52149
    Oct 10 '19 at 14:00
  • 3
    @nerdygenocider: Be cautious of motivated reasoning. Just because you want it to be false, doesn't mean it is. We won't accept questions that only accept evidence on one side, so your question has been edited. Best of luck with the procedure; I hope it help you.
    – Oddthinking
    Oct 10 '19 at 14:32

There may actually be some association between respiration and the inner ear in infants. Apart from the sources mentioned in the question, I have found a single other study in Perceptual and Motor Skills, 1990, according to which stimulation of the labyrinth in the inner ear by rocking can help prevent cessation of breathing (apnea) in premature infants:

Some infants seem to be born with a degree of respiratory centre immaturity which in combination with other problems such as illness, head colds, exposure to cold, air or smoke, may result in cessation of breathing. Vestibular stimulation by rocking has been shown to be beneficial for premature babies in reducing apnea.

Additionally, in Neuroscience, 2016, there is a study (co-authored by DD Rubens) that starts with:

Infants that succumb to SIDS [Sudden Infant Death Syndrome] have been described with inner ear dysfunction at birth and on autopsy.

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