Findings of a new study provide evidence that a compound found in broccoli sprouts could alleviate the behavioral symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

For the new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Oct. 13, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine professor Paul Talalay and colleagues involved 44 predominantly male participants between 13 and 27 years old who were diagnosed with autism to assess if the compound sulforaphane can improve symptoms of their condition.

Sulforaphane is naturally found in broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage and cauliflower. The compound has been studied for its potentials in preventing cancers. It was also found to boost the activity of genes that help cells protect themselves from radiation, oxidative stress and inflammation.

The researchers said that they have chosen to study sulforaphane as a potential autism therapy because of the "fever effect," observed in some of the children diagnosed with ASD wherein symptoms of the condition including repetitive behavior fade out temporarily when the child has fever, a phenomenon that the researchers attribute to heat-shock response, which is designed to protect body from stress. Research shows that sulforaphane can trigger this heat-shock response.

"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," said study author Andrew Zimmerman, from the Massachusetts General Hospital for Children.

The researchers randomly assigned 29 of the participants to receive sulforaphane capsules and the remaining 15 received placebo capsules every day for 18 weeks. By the fourth week of the study period, caregivers already reported noticing behavioral improvement among those in the sulforaphane group.

Of the 40 participants who came back for evaluation, the 26 participants who received sulforaphane capsule attained significantly better average scores for each of the assessments compared with the 14 in the placebo group albeit the symptoms eventually returned after the sulforaphane treatment was stopped.

"After 18 wk, participants receiving placebo experienced minimal change whereas those receiving sulforaphane showed substantial declines (improvement of behavior): 34% for Aberrant Behavior Checklist (ABC), and 17% for Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS) scores," the researchers reported. "On Clinical Global Impression Improvement Scale (CGI-I), a significantly greater number of participants receiving sulforaphane had improvement in social interaction, abnormal behavior, and verbal communication." 

About one in 68 American children have ASD but no treatment is yet available to treat this group of developmental disabilities marked by social and behavioral problems.

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