A chemical found in broccoli sprouts appears to improve some symptoms of autism .
The study involved 40 teenage boys and young men, ages 13 to 27 . Those who took the chemical, called sulforaphane , showed improvements in social and verbal skills compared to people who took a placebo . Researchers also saw a decrease in repetitive , ritualistic behaviors .
“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,” says Paul Talalay , professor of pharmacology and molecular sciences at Johns Hopkins University, who has researched compounds like sulforaphane for 25 years .
“We are far from being able to declare a victory over autism , but this gives us important insights into what might help ,” says co-investigator Andrew Zimmerman , professor of pediatric neurology at University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center .
The root causes of ASD remain elusive, but progress has been made , Talalay says , in finding biochemical and molecular abnormalities that accompany autism , many related to the efficiency of energy generation in cells .
THE FEVER EFFECT
Studies show that the cells of those with ASD often have high levels of oxidative stress , the buildup of harmful byproducts from the use of oxygen . That stress can cause inflammation, damage DNA , and lead to cancer and other chronic diseases .
In 1992 , researchers 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 from fever.
Intriguingly , about half of parents report that children’s autistic behavior improves noticeably when they have a fever , then reverses when fever abates . In 2007, Zimmerman tested this anecdotal trend clinically and found it to be true , though no explanation was identified .
Because fevers , like sulforaphane, initiate the body’s heat-shock response, Zimmerman and Talalay wondered if sulforaphane could cause the same temporary improvement in autism that fevers do . The study , published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was designed to find out .
IMPROVED IN FOUR WEEKS
Before the trial , the patients’ caregivers and physicians filled out three standard behavioral assessments that measure behaviors related to autism . Twenty-six subjects were randomly selected to receive , based on their weight , 9 to 27 milligrams of sulforaphane daily, and 14 received placebos .
Most of those who responded to sulforaphane showed significant improvements within four weeks and continued to improve during the rest of the treatment .
After 18 weeks , sulforaphane patient scores on two of the three assessments had decreased 34 and 17 percent , respectively , with improvements in bouts of irritability, lethargy , repetitive movements , hyperactivity , awareness , communication , motivation, and mannerisms .
On the third assessment , 46 , 54 , and 42 percent of sulforaphane recipients improved noticeably in social interaction , aberrant behaviors, and verbal communication , respectively .
The scores of sulforaphane patients reverted toward original values after they stopped taking the chemical .
“It seems like sulforaphane is temporarily helping cells to cope with their handicaps ,” Talalay says .
It would be very difficult to achieve the levels of sulforaphane used in the study by eating large amounts of broccoli or other cruciferous vegetables , Talalay notes . The test subjects took sulforaphane-rich broccoli sprout extract administered in capsules .
Researchers from Harvard University Medical School were coauthors of the study . The Nancy Lurie Marks Family Foundation, the Hussman Foundation, the Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Foundation , the Agnes Gund Foundation, the N of One Foundation , and the Brassica Foundation for Chemoprotection Research provided funding .
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