Chemical Present in Common Vegetables May Improve Several Symptoms of Autism

A recent study has discovered that a daily intake of vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage can significantly improve several symptoms of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in conjunction with MassGeneral Hospital for Children, reported that daily treatment of sulforaphane, a molecule commonly found in certain vegetables, resulted in improved behavior and communication.

Although this is a pilot study and larger investigations need to take place, researchers are rather hopeful about sulforaphane’s therapeutic benefits. In their report, which is being published in PNAS Early Edition, participants who received a daily dose of sulforaphane showed significant improvement in both behavioral and communicative assessments in just four short weeks.

Dr. Andrew Zimmerman, co-corresponding author of the report, states, “Over the years, there have been several anecdotal reports that children with autism can have improvements in social interaction and sometimes language skills when they have a fever”. He continues, “We investigated what might be behind that on a cellular level and postulated that it results from fever’s activation of the cellular stress response, in which protective cellular mechanisms that are usually held in reserve are turned on through activation of gene transcription.” Dr. Paul Talalay, co-corresponding author, found that sulforaphane particularly supports key aspects of the cell stress response.

The current study focused on 44 males between the ages of 13 and 27, with each individual being in the range of moderate to severe on the autism spectrum. Each participant was either randomly assigned to a daily dose of sulforaphane, which was extracted from broccoli, or a placebo. Participants were assessed over the course of 18 weeks, using standardized measurements of behavior and social interaction.

Dr. Kanwaljit Singh, lead author of the study, states that the assessments were significantly better for the 26 individuals receiving sulforaphane than the 14 that received a placebo. In as little as four weeks, individuals showed improvement in factors such as irritability, repetitive movement, hyperactivity, and communication.

Dr. Zimmerman concludes, “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.” He continues, “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.”

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