Sulforaphane supplement mitigates autism traits
Most teenagers and young adults with autism react well to supplements containing sulforaphane, a glucosinolate that is found in broccoli, sprouts and other members of the cabbage family, report Harvard researchers in the prestigious scientific journal PNAS.
Autism and fever
In 2007 researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Hopkins published the results of a study in which autistic children aged 2-18 had fewer symptoms of their condition during and after a period of fever. [Pediatrics. 2007 Dec;120(6):e1386-92.] "We hypothesized the changes in fever probably are due to changes in cells that are stimulated by what's called the cellular stress response", said the research team leader Andrew Zimmerman in an interview. [foxnews.com October 13, 2014]
Fever forces cells to do a big clean up. Eating vegetables from the cabbage family has the same effect, and that is mainly due to the presence of a substance discovered in the early nineties by researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine: sulforaphane. [Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1992 Mar 15;89(6):2399-403.] Cabbage and its relatives contain glucoraphanin, and in the body this is converted into sulforaphane.
It's the sulforaphane present in cabbage that means brassicas probably offer protection against carcinogenic chemicals [Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1997 Sep 16;94(19):10367-72.], against skin cancer caused by UV radiation [Cancer Lett. 2006 Aug 28;240(2):243-52.] and against the damaging effects of air pollution [Cancer Prev Res (Phila). 2014 Aug;7(8):813-23.].
In the body's cells sulforaphane attaches itself to the protein keap-1, thereby activating Nrf-2, which switches on detoxifying genes in the nucleus of the cells. Piceatannol probably works in the same way.
If fever weakens autism and sulforaphane imitates the cellular effects of fever, could sulforaphane supplementation then reduce autism? This is the question the researchers at Harvard Medical School set out to answer by doing a study in which they gave 29 young people with autism, aged 13-27, a supplement containing sulforaphane for 18 weeks. A control group was given a placebo instead.
The doses used were modest. The subjects weighing less than 45 kg were given 9 mg sulforaphane daily; subjects weighing 45-90 kg were given 18 mg and those heavier than 90 kg were given 27 mg sulforaphane daily. Supplements containing these kinds of doses are easily available on the market.
The researchers asked parents or guardians of the subjects to evaluate the subjects' behaviour. One of the ways they did this was using a modified version of the Aberrant Behavior Checklist (ABC), which is shown below.
The lowest score per item was 1 and the highest was 4. The total scores of the experimental group decreased by 34 percent during the supplementation period.
"When we broke the code that revealed who was receiving sulforaphane and who got the placebo, the results weren't surprising to us, since the improvements were so noticeable", said research leader Andrew Zimmerman in a press release. [massgeneral.org 13/Oct/2014]
"But it's important to note that the improvements didn't affect everyone – about one third had no improvement – and the study must be repeated in a larger group of adults and in children, something we're hoping to organize soon. Ultimately we need to get at the biology underlying the effects we have seen and study it at a cellular level. I think that will be done, and I hope it will teach us a lot about this still poorly understood disorder."
Sulforaphane has anticatabolic and pseudo-anabolic effects. It protects muscle cells during extreme physical exertion. In addition, sulforaphane partially deactivates the muscle inhibiting protein myostatin and stimulates the transformation of stem cells into muscle cells.
It's possible that the subjects in this study noticed some of these effects: they put on 2 kg bodyweight during the study.
Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 Oct 28;111(43):15550-5.
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