Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder that results in social, behavioral, and communication problems. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in every 68 children has been diagnosed with ASD. The condition is 5 times more common in boys than in girls. The cause of autism is unclear so current treatment is focused on managing associated conditions and behaviors. Treatment options vary by individual but may include special education services, therapy, behavior programs, and medications.
Researchers from Massachusetts wanted to examine the effect of taking the phytochemical sulforaphane, derived from broccoli sprout extracts, on behavior in young men with autism. The trial, published in PNAS, found that sulforaphane resulted in significant improvement of behavior.
This randomized trial included 44 young men between the ages of 13 and 27 years old who have moderate to severe autism. The men were randomly assigned to a group that received a placebo or a group that received the phytochemical sulforaphane. The effects on behavior were measured using widely accepted behavioral measures completed by parents/caregivers and physicians. Participants were measured after 18 weeks of treatment and 4 weeks after treatment was stopped.
After the trial, the study concluded that participants who received sulforaphane had significant improvement in social interaction, abnormal behavior, and verbal communication after 18 weeks. When the treatment was discontinued, participants who received sulforaphane returned to their pretreatment status while participants receiving the placebo had minimal change. Two of the participants taking sulforaphane had seizures during the study, but these participants both had a previous history of seizures.
A randomized trial is considered the most reliable form of research but how the research is done will affect its reliability. In any trial, the higher the number of participants the more reliable the results may be. This trial with only 44 participants is considered a small study. The study also only included young men ages of 13 and 27 years old, so it is not clear if the benefits would apply to women or people outside of the included age range.
Researchers believe that sulforaphane may provide autism benefits by easing stress and inflammation inside the body's cells, including brain cells but the exact connection is not clear. Although the study shows promise, don't load your child up on broccoli casserole just yet. Though broccoli is healthy, the amount of broccoli needed to equal the amounts of sulforaphane given in this study would be overwhelming. This study was not focused on establishing a safe or effective dosing either. Future research should be done to identify how the compound eases autism symptoms and to make sure it is safe in the doses that are needed for change.
If your child has autism, work with your child's healthcare team to find treatment options that may be right for your child.
Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
Kids Health—Nemours Foundation
Broccoli Sprouts for Autism? What you need to know. Autism Speaks website. Available at: http://www.autismspeaks.org/blog/2014/10/14/broccoli-sprouts-autism-what-you-need-know. Accessed October 21, 2014.
Facts about ASD. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/facts.html. Updated March 20, 2014. Accessed October 21, 2014.
Kanwaljit Singh, Susan L. Connors, et al. Sulforaphane treatment of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) PNAS 2014 ; published ahead of print October 13, 2014. Available at: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/10/08/1416940111. Accessed October 21, 2014.
Last reviewed October 2014 by Michael Woods, MD