Sudden unexpected death in early childhood: general observations in a series of 151 cases: Part 1 of the investigations of the San Diego SUDC Research Project

Marco M. Hefti, Hannah C. Kinney, Jane B. Cryan, Elisabeth A. Haas, Amy E. Chadwick, Laura A. Crandall, Felicia L. Trachtenberg, Dawna D. Armstrong, Marjorie Grafe, Henry F. Krous

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34 Scopus citations


Purpose: The purpose of this study was to determine the major subcategories and clinicopathologic features of sudden unexpected death in young children in a large retrospective cohort, and to confirm the association of sudden unexplained death in children (abbreviated by us for unexplained deaths as SUDC) with hippocampal pathology and/or febrile seizures. Methods: We undertook analysis of a retrospective cohort of 151 cases, of which 80 % (121/151) were subclassified as SUDC, 11 % (16/151) as explained, 7 % (10/151) as undetermined, and 3 % (4/151) as seizure-related. Results: There were no significant differences between SUDC and explained cases in postnatal, gestational, or postconceptional age, frequency of preterm birth, gender, race, or organ weights. In contrast, 96.7 % (117/121) of the SUDC group were discovered during a sleep period compared to 53.3 % (8/15) of the explained group (p < 0.001), and 48.8 % (59/121) of the SUDC cases had a personal and/or family history of febrile seizures compared to 6.7 % (1/15) of the explained group (p < 0.001). Of the explained deaths, 56 % (9/16) were subclassified as infection, 31 % (5/16) cardiac, 6 % (1/16) accidental, and 6 % (1/16) metabolic. Two of the three cases specifically tested for cardiac channelopathies at autopsy based upon clinical indications had genetic variants in cardiac genes, one of uncertain significance. Bacterial cultures at autopsy typically revealed organisms interpreted as contaminants. Two of the four seizure-related deaths were witnessed, with two of the brains from these cases showing generalized malformations. Hippocampal anomalies, including a specific combination we termed hippocampal maldevelopment associated with sudden death, were found in almost 50 % (40/83) of the SUDC and undetermined cases in which hippocampal sections were available. Conclusions: This study highlights the key role for the hippocampus, febrile seizures, and sleep in SUDC pathophysiology. It also demonstrates the role of known predisposing conditions such as cardiac channelopathies and infections in causing sudden unexpected death in childhood, and the need for improved ancillary testing and protective strategies in these cases, even when the cause of death is established at autopsy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4-13
Number of pages10
JournalForensic Science, Medicine, and Pathology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1 2016


  • Febrile seizures
  • Hippocampus
  • Sudden death
  • Sudden unexpected death in childhood

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine


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