ADHD News & Research

Compound Found in Broccoli Shows Promise as Autism Treatment

According to a new study, sulforaphane — a compound found in broccoli — may have a positive impact on autism symptoms.

October 17, 2014

Eat your veggies, folks! A new study reveals that a compound found in broccoli sprouts and other cruciferous vegetables may have a positive effect on the social and behavioral problems associated with autism.

The compound, called sulforaphane, has long been studied for its potential benefits against cancer. Researchers explored it as an autism treatment because of its so-called “fever effect,” or ability to trigger a “heat-shock” response in some cells. In some children with autism, problems such as hyperactivity and repetitive behaviors decrease when the child has a fever — which also triggers a heat-shock response.

The study looked at 44 boys and young men, ranging in age from 13 to 27, with moderate to severe Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). They were randomly assigned to take either sulforaphane capsules or placebo capsules every day for 18 weeks. They were observed by both their parents and the study staff, neither of whom were aware which capsule the child had taken.

By week 18, nearly half of the sulforaphane group was showing significant improvement in irritability, lethargy, social awareness, hyperactivity, and repetitive behaviors. For those who showed improvement, the symptoms returned once they stopped taking the sulforaphane compound.

There were some safety concerns, the researchers pointed out. Two of the boys had seizures either while they were taking the sulforaphane or shortly after the study ended. Both boys had a history of seizures, so it’s possible that they were unrelated to the sulforaphane – but since many children with autism are also at risk for seizures, further research on the compound is needed to determine its safety. For now, normal levels of sulforaphane found in broccoli shouldn’t pose a risk to children with autism.

If your child still refuses to eat broccoli, don’t despair. The study was just a preliminary look at sulforaphane’s effect on ASD, but researchers see hope for future autism research. “The result implies these symptoms can be changed,” said Andrew Zimmerman, a pediatric neurologist who worked on the study. “They are not set in stone.”