Study: This Veggie Compound May Improve Autism Symptoms

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Here’s yet another exciting development in autism research: Researchers say they have found promising signs that a compound extracted from broccoli sprouts may improve some social and behavioral problems for people with autism, according to a CBS news report. The compound is called sulforaphane, and it’s naturally found in broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables. The chemical has already been widely studied for potential benefits against cancer.

Lead researcher Kanwaljit Singh, MD, of Massachusetts General Hospital for Children in Boston, explains that one reason researchers chose to study broccoli sprout extracts relates to a phenomenon called “fever effect” that is seen in some autistic children — problems such as repetitive behavior fade when the child has a fever. Speculation is that fever spikes a heat-shock response, shielding body cells from stress. In laboratory research, sulforaphane sparks that same response.

The researchers tested 44 boys and young men, ages 13 to 27, with moderate to severe autism. For 18 weeks the subjects took either a sulforaphane capsule or a placebo. The group taking the sulforaphane showed improvements in irritability, repetitive behaviors, hyperactivity, and communication by the fourth week. Based on their ratings, 46 percent of the sulforaphane group were showing improved social interaction by week 18, and another 42 percent were improving at verbal communication. Four weeks after the treatment ended, the improvements for those taking sulforaphane were waning.

The study was small and preliminary, and researchers hope to replicate the protocol in a larger study that also includes females and younger children. The extract used in the study is not commercially available, but there are sulforaphane supplements available in the marketplace. (Broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables rich in sulforaphane do not contain enough of the chemical to equal the purified extract used in the study.) Dr. Singh noted, however, that these supplements are not standardized, so there’s no way to tell how much sulforaphane they actually contain.