Massachusetts General Hospital found that young adults and teens with autism reported fewer symptoms when taking sulforaphane, a chemical found in broccoli.
A chemical found in broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage may improve some symptoms of autism, a new study has found.
Autistic teenagers and young adults given does of sulforaphane showed improvement in both behaviour and communication skills within four weeks of taking the drug.
Two thirds were less irritable, lethargic, better motivated, able to communicate and had less repetitive movements, researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital found.
The study published online in PNAS enrolled 44 young men aged 13 to 27, who had been diagnosed with moderate to severe autism spectrum disorder.
They were randomly assigned to a daily dose of either sulforaphane – extracted from broccoli sprouts – or a placebo.
Dr Kanwaljit Singh said that among the 40 participants who returned for at least one evaluation, the average scores for each of the assessments were significantly better for the 26 participants receiving sulforaphane than for the 14 who received a placebo.
“When we broke the code that revealed who was receiving sulforaphane and who got the placebo, the results weren’t surprising to us, since the improvements were so noticeable,” said co-author Andrew Zimmerman, a professor of Pediatric Neurology.
“The improvements seen on the Social Responsiveness Scale were particularly remarkable, and I’ve been told this is the first time that any statistically significant improvement on the SRS has been seen for a drug study in autism spectrum disorder.
“But it’s important to note that the improvements didn’t affect everyone – about one third had no improvement – and the study must be repeated in a larger group of adults and in children, something we’re hoping to organize soon.
“Ultimately we need to get at the biology underlying the effects we have seen and study it at a cellular level. I think that will be done, and I hope it will teach us a lot about this still poorly understood disorder.”
In 1992 it was discovered that sulforaphane has some ability to bolster the body’s natural defenses against oxidative stress, inflammation and DNA damage.
In addition, the chemical later turned out to improve the body’s heat-shock response — a cascade of events used to protect cells from the stress caused by high temperatures, including those experienced when people have fever.
Intriguingly about half of parents report that their children’s autistic behavior improves noticeably when they have a fever, then reverts back when the fever is gone.
“It seems like sulforaphane is temporarily helping cells to cope with their handicaps,” said Prof Paul Talalay of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, who also co-authored the report.
The research was welcomed by health experts and charities.
Richard Mills, Research Director at Research Autism, said: “Sulforaphane is a safe intervention and certainly worth a larger controlled trial.”
However Dr Rosa Hoekstra, Lecturer in Psychology, at The Open University, said: “It is impossible to draw firm and generalizable conclusions based on such a small and selected group of participants. Therefore, as things stand, parents of a child with autism should not feel guilty if their child refuses to eat broccoli.”