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Chemical in broccoli may improve autism symptoms

Chemical in broccoli may improve autism symptoms

Sulforaphane, a compound present as a precursor in broccoli, may improve symptoms of disorders in the autism spectrum. This is demonstrated by researchers of the MassGeneral Hospital for Children and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Results of this research were published in the medical scientific journal PNAS.

Research on sulforaphane has been conducted since its discovery in 1992. It is a strong antioxidant, effective against Helicobacter pylori infection and cancer.  Although the underlying mechanism remains elusive, researchers agree on sulforaphane affecting cellular stress through activating of the heat shock response, which is also occurring in fever. Previous research shows that fever can ameliorate autistic behaviour. The authors therefore decided to combine these facts in a clinical trial to determine the effect of sulforaphane on the behaviour of people with a disorder in the autistic spectrum.

This clinical trial was conducted in a group of 40 boys and men from 13 to 27 years, suffering from a moderate to severe autism spectrum disorder. They were divided into two groups – the one group received a daily dosage of sulforaphane for eighteen weeks, whereas the other received a placebo. Using a standardised questionnaire, caretakers were frequently asked about the participants’ behaviour and social interaction. After treatment with sulforaphane was stopped, 4 weeks later one final questionnaire was taken.

According to the authors, the group that had received sulforaphane scored significantly better than the placebo group did. Even upon analysis of the first questionnaire, four weeks after starting treatment, caretakers could see an improvement in the behaviour of some participants. At the end of the study, seventeen of 26 participants who had received sulforaphane were calmer and showed improvement in their behaviour and social interaction. The questionnaire presented after stopping of treatment, showed that most improvements had disappeared. According to the researchers, this is an indication that the observed changes were an effect of sulforaphane administration.

The authors think the results of their research are a first step to treatment of autism spectrum disorders. However, to confirm their results, they emphasise that this pilot study has to be repeated in a larger group. Also, the levels of sulforaphane in broccoli and other vegetables are highly variable and too low to achieve the needed levels. Therefore, alleviating the symptoms of an autistic disorder by eating broccoli still remains a long way off.

Source: PNAS Early Edition.

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