Researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and MassGeneral Hospital for Children in Massachusetts have identified a chemical in broccoli sprouts that may help improve the symptoms of autism

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) affects roughly 1 to 2 percent of the world's population, with much higher rates in boys than in girls. The cause of autism remains a mystery, but doctors are slowly but surely honing in on the genetic and cellular changes that occur in a person with autism. According to researchers, patients with ASD have cells with high levels of oxidative stress caused by the buildup of harmful, unintended byproducts from the cell’s use of oxygen. This oxidative stress can cause inflammation, damage DNA, and lead to cancer and other chronic diseases. For this study, researchers wanted to look at the ability of sulforaphane, a plant chemical derived from broccoli sprouts, to reduce oxidative stress. Sulforaphane is best known for as a potential treatment of certain types of cancer.

For the study, which was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers evaluated 40 boys and young men aged 13 to 27 who were diagnosed with moderate to severe autism. The boys were treated for 18 weeks with a daily dose of either a placebo or sulforaphane. Their social and behavioral issues were evaluated at the beginning of the study, and at four, ten, and 18 weeks during the study.

Researchers found that compared to the participants who were given the placebo, those who received a daily dose of the chemical sulforaphane experienced substantial improvements in their social interaction and verbal communication, along with decreases in repetitive, ritualistic behaviors. The changes were first noticeable at the four-week evaluation and continued for the duration of the study. Participants using sulforaphane saw improvements in irritability, lethargy, repetitive movements, hyperactivity, awareness, communication, motivation and mannerisms. Further, these changes reverted back to their original levels once the participants stopped taking the sulforaphane.

So could a daily dose of broccoli sprouts be the key to keeping autism symptoms in check? Researchers caution that it would be difficult to consume the levels of sulforaphane given to study participants by eating broccoli sprouts or other cruciferous vegetables. But this study and others like it will hopefully give health providers better tools to treat and maybe even cure this enigmatic condition.

Related on MNN: