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Could Broccoli Treat Autism?!

Oct 14, 2014 06:22 PM EDT

(Photo : Pixabay)

A chemical found in broccoli sprouts and a few other vegetables is showing some promise as a treatment for autism, potentially mitigating some common behavioral symptoms of the condition.

That's at least according to a study recently published in the journal Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

"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," co-author Andrew Zimmerman explained in a recent release. "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."

Paul Talalay, another co-author, first isolated the chemical sulforaphane in the 1990s. This chemical is most commonly found in broccoli sprouts and is believed to support key aspects of the cell stress response. That's why  Zimmerman decided to contact Talalay in the hopes of finding a way to use the chemical to help autistic patients become more socially aware. (Scroll to read on...)

broccoli sprouts from which sulforaphane  was extracted.
(Photo : Johns Hopkins Medicine) broccoli sprouts from which sulforaphane was extracted.

For this new PNAS study, the pair and their colleagues enrolled 44 young men, ages 13 to 27, who had been diagnosed with moderate to severe autism spectrum disorder. The participants were assigned a daily dose of either sulforaphane or a placebo, with neither investigators, participants, nor their caregivers knowing who was receiving the study drug. The treatment lasted for 18 weeks, with researchers and caregivers regularly assessing the participants' level of social interaction.

Stunningly, 17 of the 26 participants who received sulforaphane were judged by their caregivers to have improvements in behavior, social interaction and calmness while on active treatment. No notable changes were noticed in the placebo group.

"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," Talalay said in a statement.

However, how exactly this is working remains to be seen, and requires much more in-depth investigation.

"We are far from being able to declare a victory over autism, but this gives us important insights into what might help," added Zimmerman.

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