BOSTON – A chemical derived from broccoli sprouts is showing promise in treating autism spectrum disorder, according to a recent study by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

The chemical sulforaphane is a molecule found in the cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage.

The report was published online in PNAS Early Edition Oct. 13.

Autism spectrum disorder includes abnormalities such as impaired communication ability, stifled social interaction and restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior, interests and activities. It tends to present more frequently among male children. About 1 in 68 children in the United States is diagnosed with the disorder.

The research of sulforaphane used in a daily treatment may improve some of the classic symptoms of ASD in both behavioral and communications assessments in as little as four weeks.

This blind pilot study enrolled 44 men, ages 13 to 27, who had been diagnosed with moderate to severe ASD. Participants were randomly assigned to a daily dose of either sulforaphane – extracted from broccoli sprouts – or a placebo.

After 18 weeks of treatment using the average scores on two assessments – the Aberrant Behavior Checklist and Social Responsiveness Scale –those who received sulforaphane had decreased 34 and 17 percent, respectively. This indicates improvement in factors such as irritability, lethargy, repetitive movements, hyperactivity, communication, motivation and mannerisms.

Assessments using the Clinical Global Impression scale showed 46 percent of sulforaphane recipients had noticeable improvement in social interaction, 54 percent in aberrant behaviors, and 42 percent in verbal communication.

But after stopping treatment with sulforaphane, most but not all of the improvements had disappeared by the 22-week reassessment. This lead to the conclusion that behavioral changes while in treatment had been the result of sulforaphane supplements.

While the author’s stress that the results of this pilot study must be confirmed in larger studies before conclusions can be made about sulforaphane’s benefit to ASD patients, the results of this study are encouraging, even if a third of those in the study did not respond to the treatment.

Isolating one chemical from a natural delivery such as consuming the whole plant is typical of conventional medicine, said Dr. Aviva D. Wertkin, ND.

Wertkin, who practices at Naturae Medical in Brattleboro, Vermont said the results of using sulforaphane with ASD patients doesn’t surprise her because “It’s not really a chemical, it’s more of a phytochemical,” she said. “I’d imagine the sulfur component is working on the detox pathways, we already know at least half of the problem of those with the spectrum is their bodies are overburdened with toxicity, so that anything that helps detoxify them is going to help them show improvement.”

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