Foods like broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage, known for claims they can help prevent certain cancers, have now been linked to easing classic behavioural symptoms in those with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs).
A chemical derived from the vegetables called sulforaphane was given daily to a group of teenage boys and young men, aged between 13 and 27, with moderate to severe autism.
They experienced substantial improvements in their social interaction and verbal communication.
They also showed decreases in repetitive, ritualistic behaviours compared to those who received a placebo.
“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,.
He has researched these 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,” says co-investigator Andrew Zimmerman, M.D., now a professor of pediatric neurology at UMass Memorial Medical Center.
ASD experts estimate that the group of disorders affects 1 to 2 percent of the world’s population, with a much higher incidence in boys than girls.
Most of those who responded to sulforaphane showed significant improvements by the first measurement at four weeks and continued to improve during the rest of the treatment.
Talalay notes that the scores of those who took sulforaphane trended back toward their original values after they stopped taking the chemical.
Talalay cautions that the levels of sulforaphane precursors present in different varieties of broccoli are highly variable.
Furthermore, the capacity of individuals to convert these precursors to active sulforaphane also varies greatly.
It would be very difficult to achieve the levels of sulforaphane used in this study by eating large amounts of broccoli or other cruciferous vegetables, he adds.
The study is published online in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.