Broccoli may improve autism symptoms: study

Washington:  A chemical found in broccoli sprouts may improve some social and behavioural problems that affect people with autism, a new study, led by an Indian-origin researcher, has claimed.

Researchers at MassGeneral Hospital for Children (MGHfC) and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine describe how participants receiving a daily dose of sulforaphane – a molecule found in foods such as broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage – showed improvement in both behavioural and communication assessments in as little as four weeks.

Andrew Zimmerman, a co-corresponding author of the study based at UMass Memorial Medical Centre, proposed investigating sulforaphane’s possible benefits for treating autism.

The study enrolled 44 young men, aged 13 to 27, who had been diagnosed with moderate to severe autism spectrum disorder.

Participants were randomly assigned to a daily dose of either sulforaphane – extracted from broccoli sprouts – or a placebo, with neither investigators, participants nor their caregivers knowing who was receiving the study drug.

Treatment was discontinued after 18 weeks, and additional assessments of 22 participants were conducted 4 weeks later.

Study lead author Kanwaljit Singh, from MGHfC-affiliated Lurie Centre for Autism and UMass, said that among the 40 participants who returned for at least one evaluation, the average scores for each of the assessments were significantly better for the 26 participants receiving sulforaphane than for the 14 who received a placebo.

Even at the 4-week visit, some caregivers reported a noticeable behavioural improvement, and by the end of the study period, both study staff and family members correctly guessed the assignments of many participants.

Overall, 17 of the 26 participants who received sulforaphane were judged by their caregivers to have improvements in behaviour, social interaction and calmness while on active treatment.

After 18 weeks of treatment, the average scores on two assessments of those who received sulforaphane had decreased 34 and 17 per cent, respectively – indicating improvement in factors such as irritability, lethargy, repetitive movements, hyperactivity, communication, motivation and mannerisms.

Assessments using the Clinical Global Impression scale indicated that 46 per cent of sulforaphane recipients exhibited noticeable improvement in social interaction, 54 per cent in aberrant behaviours, and 42 per cent in verbal
communication, researchers said.

Most but not all of the improvements had disappeared by the 22-week reassessment, supporting the probability that changes had been the result of sulforaphane treatment.

The authors stress that the results of this pilot study must be confirmed in larger investigations before any conclusions can be drawn about sulforaphane’s therapeutic benefit.

The study appears in the journal PNAS.

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