Girl with Broccoli iStockA chemical derived from broccoli could help ameliorate symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Researchers at MassGeneral Hospital for Children and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine conducted a trial to determine whether sulforaphane, a chemical derived from broccoli sprouts, could ease ASD symptoms. The results demonstrate that regular doses of sulforaphane can improve autism symptoms including repetitive behaviors and verbal communication. The study may lead to treatments that take on the root causes of autism.

The concept of the study is based on two other findings. First, other researchers found that ASD symptoms abate during a fever. Second, sulforaphane spurs a heat-shock response in the body, similar to that of a fever. The researchers investigating the connection between fevers and autism could not determine why fevers eased ASD symptoms. For the present study, the research team wanted to find out if sulforaphane could improve ASD symptoms like a fever does.

Forty male teenagers and young adults, aged 13 to 27, with moderate to severe ASD participated in the trial. Before the trial began, the participants’ caregivers and physicians completed three behavioral assessments: the Aberrant Behavior Checklist (ABC), the Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS), and the Clinical Global Impressions-Improvement scale (CGI-I). For 18 weeks, 26 of the participants received a dose of sulforaphane—the dosage based on the participant’s body weight—and 14 participants received placebos. At 4, 10, and 18 weeks, the researchers conducted additional rounds of behavior assessments. Most of the participants also completed a final assessment four weeks after the treatment ended.

The participants who received the sulforaphane treatment demonstrated significant improvements compared to the participants who only received the placebo. The sulforaphane treatment group showed improvements by week four of the trial and continued to improve through the rest of the treatment. By the end of the trial, the sulforaphane treatment group’s average ABC scores decreased by 34 percent and their SRS scores decreased by 17 percent. Their irritability, hyperactivity, motivation, and other symptoms improved. The CGI-I results improved, too. By the end of the trial, the sulforaphane treatment group had average improvements of 46 percent in social interaction, 54 percent in aberrant behaviors and 42 percent in verbal communication. After the treatment ended, the participants’ scores trended back towards their original values.

The researchers suspect that this treatment is so effective because it acts on the root causes of autism spectrum disorder. They caution that individuals cannot get this level of sulforaphane just from eating broccoli.

This research is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Previous news in autism: