Health and Medicine

Chemical Extracted From Broccoli Sprouts May Help Ease Autism Symptoms

October 14, 2014 | by Lisa Winter

Photo credit: Julie Gibbons

A new study found that a chemical in broccoli sprouts is able to temporarily improve symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The research was a collaboration between researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore and Massachusetts General Hospital for Children and it was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Those with ASD generally have higher than normal levels of oxidative stress within their cells, and previous research has shown that about half experience an improvement of behavioral symptoms when experiencing a fever. This effect is only temporary, as the symptoms return after the fever subsides. Andrew Zimmerman and his team at Mass. General were not sure why this happened, and set out to discover the mechanism. The current study used sulforaphane, a chemical extracted from broccoli sprouts.

Broccoli sprouts, along with other cruciferous veggies, contain precursors of a chemical called sulforaphane. This molecule has been studied for its ability to help combat oxidative stress in cells. Cells that have been damaged by this stress can display abnormalities in cell signaling, and can even develop inflammation leading to chronic diseases like cancer. Previous research by co-author Paul Talalay of Johns Hopkins found that sulforaphane helps the body’s heat-shock response, which protects cells when faced with fevers or other sources high temperatures. 

Talalay and Zimmerman paired up in the current study to see if sulforaphane could replicate the ASD symptom-abating effects of a fever. The study used 40 male patients with severe or moderate ASD, ranging in age from 13 to 27. Weight-dependent dosages between 9-27 milligrams were given to 26 of the participants every day for 18 weeks. The remaining 14 were given placebos.

Three different assessments were used to rate behavior before the study and after weeks 4, 10, and 18. Additionally, many of the study participants were also assessed again several weeks after the end of the treatment. Ultimately, the researchers found that about half of those receiving the treatment saw improvement.

"We believe that this may be preliminary evidence for the first treatment for autism that improves symptoms by apparently correcting some of the underlying cellular problems," Talalay said in a press release.

Improvements with social interactions had been recorded in 46% of the participants that had taken sulforaphane. Some of these participants had also begun to look people in the eye and shake hands; a first for all of them. A total of 54% of participants exhibited an improvement with aberrant behaviors—including ritualistic movements and hyperactivity. Verbal communication improved among 42% of them. However, weeks after they stopped taking the sulforaphane, the symptoms returned to their pre-study levels.

"We are far from being able to declare a victory over autism, but this gives us important insights into what might help," Zimmerman added.

If you have a child with Autism, don’t base their entire diet off of broccoli sprouts just yet. Not everyone is able to obtain the sulforaphane from the vegetables in the same way, and it would be incredibly hard to eat enough greens to hit the amounts found in these treatments anyway.

[Hat tip: LiveScience]

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