Broccoli sprouts hope for autism

New research suggests that sulforaphane, a compound in broccoli sprouts, may alleviate some of the behaviors associated with autism.

A chemical derived from broccoli sprouts may reduce some of the behavioral symptoms of autism. Results of a small clinical trial conducted by scientists at MassGeneral Hospital for Children and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine suggests that the compound sulforaphane, found in the sprouts may target the root of the behaviors at the cellular level.

The study involved 40 teenaged boys and young men, ages 13 to 27, with moderate to severe autism. Many of the subjects who received a daily dose of nine to 27 mg of sulforaphane for 18 weeks showed substantial improvements in social interaction, verbal communication and less repetitive, ritualistic behaviors compared to the subjects who received a placebo, according to a release from Johns Hopkins. The research was published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and noted on

The discovery stems from an intriguing observation made by parents of autistic children: Their kids’ autistic behaviors would noticeably improve when they had fevers, and then increase when their temperatures returned to normal. The study’s lead researchers, Paul Talalay, M.D., professor of pharmacology and molecular sciences, and Andrew Zimmerman, M.D. a professor of pediatric neurology at U. Mass Memorial Medical Center, knew sulforaphane also improved the body’s heat-shock response from previous research into the compound. The response involves a cascade of events that protects cells from the stress caused by high temperatures, like when people have fever. They designed their trial to test whether the sulforaphane might have the same impact on autistic behaviors. It seems like it does.

“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,” says Paul Talalay, M.D., professor of pharmacology and molecular sciences, who has researched vegetable compounds like sulforaphane 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,” says co-investigator Andrew Zimmerman, M.D., now a professor of pediatric neurology at U. Mass Memorial Medical Center.

In other autism-related developments, recent research from U.C. Davis found a link between low iron intake in pregnant women and a five-fold greater risk of autism in their children.

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