Compound found in broccoli may help treat children with autism

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SOUTH BEND, Ind.--- Autism spectrum disorder affects one in 68 children in the U.S.

There is no cure, but there is a promising new treatment being studied, and it comes from that veggie mom told us to eat as kids, broccoli.

Ryan Dwelley was a happy, normally developing baby.

"He'd speak in full sentences, he was clever and he was playful," said Sharon Dwelley, Ryan’s mother.

At 27 months old he changed after a bug bite sent him to the hospital with hives.

"He went from typically developing, talking, to not making eye contact,” said Sharon. “Not really using his language."

Ryan's pediatrician diagnosed him with autism.

"It's been hard,” said Sharon. “For him and for us."

His family tried medications, diet, but nothing seemed to help. Then everything changed when Sharon found out about a new study.

"It was unbelievable,” said Sharon. “I noticed immediately that he had the decrease in his vocalizations."

Dr. Andrew Zimmerman, a Pediatric Neurologist at UMass Memorial Medical Center, says a compound found in broccoli sprouts seems to mimic something called the fever effect in the boy, it's what protects cells in times of stress.

"Sulforaphane is one compound that performs many of these functions by kick starting, or up-regulating, those functions in the cells," said Dr. Zimmerman.

The idea came from a previous study showing when kids with autism get a fever their symptoms improved.

"They're more sociable, and they make more eye contact," said Dr. Zimmerman.

In the 18-week trial, 40 young men with severe to moderate autism either got the drug or a placebo.

By week four researchers saw improvements.

"They were calmer, more sociable," said Dr. Kanwaljit Singh, a Post-doctorate research associate at UMass Memorial Medical School.

By the end, half of participants had better social interactions, and two-thirds showed improved behavior.

Some made eye contact for the first time, or like Ryan, were able to go out in public.

Once the trial ended and patients stopped taking sulforaphane they reverted back to their old behaviors.

Ryan's mom was able to find another sulforaphane supplement on the market that's helped Ryan keep the positive changes he's made.

Dr. Zimmerman says sulforaphane can be found in all cruciferous vegetables including Broccoli, Cauliflower, Kale and Brussel Sprouts.

Now 17, while nonverbal, Ryan’s at a special needs school where he delivers meals with “Meals on Wheels.”

REPORT #2176

BACKGROUND: Autism spectrum disorder or ASD is a range of complex neurodevelopment disorders that usually develop in adolescence. ASD is characterized by a range of social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior. There are different forms of ASD ranging from mild to severe. Autistic disorder which is often referred to as autism or classical ASD is the most severe form of ASD. Because ASD is a spectrum disorder, it varies in character and severity. There is not just one form of autism and one autistic person can have very different social impairments and communication difficulties than another autistic person. ASD occurs in all ethnic and socioeconomic groups and affects every age group. Although it can affect a wide range of people, males are four times more likely to have ASD than females. (Source:

TREATMENTS FOR AUTISM: There is no cure for any form of ASD, including autism but there are therapies, educational/behavioral interventions, and specific medicines that can be described to help with the symptoms of the disorder. Since ASD is a spectrum disorder, many of these treatments must be specific to the needs of the individual. Although treatment has shown substantial improvement in most individuals, studies show that the earlier the intervention, the better the outcome may be. Treatments include:
* Education and behavioral interventions: Includes highly intensive skill-oriented training sessions to help patients develop social and language skills.
* Medications: There are medications to help with the symptoms that are associated with autism spectrum disorder such as anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. There are also medications such as antipsychotic medications which treat severe behavioral problems.
* Therapy: There are many therapies that are used to help treat symptoms of ASD. Therapies such as occupational therapy, behavioral therapy, language therapy and diet changes can help.

NEW TREATMENT: Because there is no cure for autism, there are many treatment options and medications to help ease the symptoms of the disorder. A new study found a chemical in broccoli sprouts, sulforaphane, that may show promise for helping with these symptoms. Many of the 40 young men who were treated in the trial began showing improvements during the first four weeks and continued to improve until the trial ended. Although the study is promising, scientists caution optimism. This study was small and preliminary in its findings but parents did notice striking changes in their children's behaviors while on the drug sulforaphane.

For More Information, Contact:

Mark Shelton
Associate Vice Chancellor for Communications at UMass Medical Center