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Will Broccoli Help Improve Autism Kids? Trial Shows

Brochcholi and its species of vegetables, containing the chemical sulforaphane, have helped autism-hit children show improvement in their behavior in a joint clinical trial held at Johns Hopkins.

Autism is the fastest growing disability in the US, increasing almost at 289.5% in the past 12 years and more than 3.5 million Americans are suffering from the neuro-motor deficiency that hits children at the age of 3, mostly boys.

The researchers at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and Massachusetts General Hospital for Children found that sulforaphane has improved behavioral symptoms in children and some adults afflicted with autism, a disability that inhibits social, emotional and communication skills, with repetitive and routine behavior. The research findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

At present, there are no medications that can treat the core symptoms of autism. But in this latest study, researchers found that sulforaphane could reduce certain behavioral symptoms of the disorder by targeting underlying cellular problems.

Sulforaphane, found in broccoli, broccoli sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, boosts body’s heat-shock response. Till recently, this chemical was known for its cancer-fighting properties, especially skin cancer. Dr Paul Thalalay, who found broccoli’s cancer fighting properties in 1992 led the current research too that focused on its autism-limiting features.

Dr. Thalalay said half of parents of kids with autism found their child’s behavioral symptoms improve significantly when they have a fever, which prompted his team to use sulforaphane to induce a heat-shock response in individuals with autism.


Thalalay’s team has conducted the clinital trial on 40 adolescents aged 13-27 who had moderate to severe autism. Of them, 26 were given a dose of sulforaphane (9-27 mg) daily, that was extracted from broccoli sprouts. The other 14 were given a daily dose of a placebo.

While parents were not informed which dose was given to their kids, the feedback from their family at 4, 10 and 18 weeks was collected using the Aberrant Behavior Checklist, the Social Responsiveness Scale and the Clinical Global Impression scale. Behavioral improvements from sulforaphane treated participants were ‘so noticeable’ within the 4 weeks into the treatment and it lasted till the end of the treatment in 18 weeks.

In 18 weeks, those on sulforaphane saw their scores on the Aberrant Behavior Checklist reduce by 34%, while scores on the Social Responsiveness Scale reduced by 17%.

The Clinical Global Impression scale revealed that 46% of those on sulforaphane showed noticeable improvements in social interaction, 54% showed improvements in aberrant behaviors – such as irritability, awareness, repetitive movements, hyperactivity and motivation – while 42% showed improvements in verbal communication.

However, the flip-side is that one-third of the patients had shown no response or any behavioral improvements despite getting the dose of sulforaphane, said researchers.

Bracing for a bigger study with more participants, Dr. Andrew Zimmerman, a professor of pediatric neurology at the University of Massachusettsthe and the co-author of the paper said, "Ultimately we need to get at the biology underlying the effects we have seen and study it at a cellular level," says Dr. Zimmerman.

Autism affects 1 in 68 US children in the US. About 35% of adults aged 19-23 with autism remain unemployed and the medical services cost the US $200-400 billion every year. And Sulforaphane has also been found beneficial in protecting against osteoarthritis, preventing breast cancer and broccoli is one of MNT’s top 10 healthy foods.

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