To gain further insight into the possible role of endogenous opioid peptides in the respiratory difficulties associated with the apnea of infancy and other disorders possibly related to apnea, the levels of beta-endorphin immunoreactivity were measured in the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) of five groups of infants: (1) infants with proved apnea, (2) infants with histories of an apparent life-threatening event (ALTE), (3) siblings of victims of the sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), (4) infants with suspected but unproved apnea, and (5) infants undergoing investigation for other acute illnesses. Twenty-two infants considered at risk for an ALTE (groups 1 to 3) had significantly higher CSF beta-endorphin equivalents (88 +/- 7 pg/mL) than did the 22 control patients in groups 4 and 5 (31 +/- 3 pg/mL). Plasma beta-endorphin immunoreactivity, which was also measured in some of the infants, did not correlate with levels in CSF and, in fact, was significantly lower in the groups at risk for an ALTE (50 +/- 9 pg/mL; n = 14) than in the control subjects (80 +/- 6 pg/mL; n = 11). These studies indicate that elevated beta-endorphin immunoreactivity in CSF may be a marker in infants who have apnea and who may be considered at risk for an ALTE.
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