autismA chemical derived from broccoli sprouts could help ease behavioural symptoms of children and young adults on the autism spectrum, a small US-based clinical trial has found. 

The study – a joint effort by scientists at MassGeneral Hospital for Children and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine – involved 40 boys and young men, aged 13 to 27, with moderate to severe autism. 

Many of those who received a daily dose of the chemical sulforaphane experienced substantial improvements in their social interaction and verbal communication, along with decreases in repetitive, ritualistic behaviours, compared to those who received a placebo, he authors said. The results were published online in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We believe that this may be preliminary evidence for the first treatment for autism that improves symptoms by apparently correcting some of the underlying cellular problems,” said Paul Talalay, MD, professor of pharmacology and molecular sciences, who has researched the vegetable compounds for the past 25 years.

“We are far from being able to declare a victory over autism, but this gives us important insights into what might help,” said co-investigator Andrew Zimmerman, MD, now a professor of paediatric neurology at UMass Memorial Medical Center.

Before the start of the trial, parents, carers and physicians filled out three standard behavioural assessments: the Aberrant Behavior Checklist (ABC), the Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS) and the Clinical Global Impressions-Improvement scale (CGI-I). The assessments measure sensory sensitivities, ability to relate to others, verbal communication skills, social interactions and other behaviours related to autism. 

Twenty-six subjects were randomly selected to receive daily doses of sulforaphane – taking 9-27 milligrams, depending on their weight – with the remaining 14 receiving placebos. Behavioural assessments were again completed at 4, 10 and 18 weeks while treatment continued. A final assessment was completed for most of the participants 4 weeks after the treatment had stopped. 

Most of those who responded to sulforaphane showed significant improvements by the first measurement and continued to improve during the rest of the treatment. After 18 weeks of treatment, the average ABC and SRS scores of those who received sulforaphane had decreased 34% and 17% respectively, with improvements in bouts of irritability, lethargy, repetitive movements, hyperactivity, awareness, communication, motivation and mannerisms. 

After 18 weeks of treatment, according to the CGI-I scale, 46%, 54% and 42% of sulforaphane recipients experienced noticeable improvements in social interaction, aberrant behaviours and verbal communication, respectively.