Broccoli. Image credit: Isaac Wedin / Flickr

A substance found in broccoli appears to alleviate the symptoms of autism. This is what researchers found in a study conducted at the Massachusetts General Hospital for Children and the Harvard Medical School in Boston.

The researchers studied the effect of sulforaphane, which is an antioxidant found in broccoli. They did so by serving broccoli to teenagers and young men with moderate to severe autism.

These 40 teenagers and young men were divided into two groups. With one group receiving varying daily doses of broccoli sprout extract. And the other group receiving a placebo.

Those who received daily doses of sulforaphane showed significant improvements in a range of symptoms. These improvements included social interaction and verbal communication. Repetitive and ritualistic behaviors often associated with autism, also decreased.

The researchers do not know why or how sulforaphane is effective against autism. But they do believe that the substance affects the body on a cellular level. And future research will surely be directed at the physiological effects associated with sulforaphane. Also, further studies are needed to assess whether the link would be the same for women and younger children.

Sulforaphane is a substance that is getting much clinical attention presently, with several clinical trials currently underway examining its effects on many conditions such as asthma, prostate cancer, and schizophrenia.

Sulforaphane is found in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, cauliflower, bok choy, kale, collards, kohlrabi, also mustard, turnip, radish, arugula, and watercress. But more so in raw vegetables than in cooked.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), characterized by both impaired communication and social interaction, and by stereotypic behavior, affects about 1 in 68, predominantly males. The medico-economic burdens of ASD are enormous, and no recognized treatment targets the core features of ASD. In a placebo-controlled, double-blind, randomized trial, young men (aged 13–27) with moderate to severe ASD received the phytochemical sulforaphane (n = 29)—derived from broccoli sprout extracts—or indistinguishable placebo (n = 15). The effects on behavior of daily oral doses of sulforaphane (50–150 µmol) for 18 wk, followed by 4 wk without treatment, were quantified by three widely accepted behavioral measures completed by parents/caregivers and physicians: the Aberrant Behavior Checklist (ABC), Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS), and Clinical Global Impression Improvement Scale (CGI-I). Initial scores for ABC and SRS were closely matched for participants assigned to placebo and sulforaphane. After 18 wk, participants receiving placebo experienced minimal change (<3.3%), whereas those receiving sulforaphane showed substantial declines (improvement of behavior): 34% for ABC (P < 0.001, comparing treatments) and 17% for SRS scores (P = 0.017). On CGI-I, a significantly greater number of participants receiving sulforaphane had improvement in social interaction, abnormal behavior, and verbal communication (P = 0.015–0.007). Upon discontinuation of sulforaphane, total scores on all scales rose toward pretreatment levels. Dietary sulforaphane, of recognized low toxicity, was selected for its capacity to reverse abnormalities that have been associated with ASD, including oxidative stress and lower antioxidant capacity, depressed glutathione synthesis, reduced mitochondrial function and oxidative phosphorylation, increased lipid peroxidation, and neuroinflammmation.

Sulforaphane treatment of autism spectrum disorder (ASD)