By Dr.Crystal Agi
A chemical derived from broccoli sprout could help treat symptoms of autism, according to a new study from Johns Hopkins and Harvard hospitals.
The study authors say it is an "intriguing" first step that could lead to a better life for those with autism spectrum disorders, which affect one in 68 children in the United States and currently have no cure or medical treatment.
"If you tell people that you've treated autism with broccoli, they would say that that is a very far-fetched idea," said study author Dr. Paul Talalay, a professor of pharmacology and molecular sciences at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Talalay and his team treated 40 autistic boys and men with autism over 18 weeks. Twenty-six of them took pills with sulforaphane, a broccoli sprout extract, and the rest received a placebo.
Study authors found that patients who took sulforaphane improved. Almost half of the patients treated with sulforaphane had "much improved" or "very much improved" social interaction and verbal communication, and more than half exhibited less aberrant behavior. When the patients stopped taking the extract, they returned to baseline levels for these symptoms within four weeks.
Those who took the placebo did not show any improvement, according to the study.
Talalay said the way in which this extract might work in autistic patients has yet to be fully understood, but past research suggests that sulforaphane can cause the body to react as it would to a fever. Since fevers have been associated with a temporary improvement of symptoms in about a third of autism patients, sulforaphane may work in a similar way, according to the study authors.
The findings appear in the October issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Autism experts not involved with the research said the findings are encouraging, but cautioned that there are still many unanswered questions.
"The trial needs to be replicated and evaluated in larger and more age-diverse samples," Dr. Susan Hyman, chief of neurodevelopmental and behavioral pediatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center, said in an email to ABC News. "But the data is certainly worth pursuing."
Dr. Max Wiznitzer, a pediatric neurologist at UH Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio, agreed.
"The results are intriguing because there is an improvement in some of the subjects," Wiznitzer said. "However, [the authors] have not shown that they have treated the core essence of autism."
Still, Wiznitzer said these findings would be "fascinating if true."
"It might give us a whole new group of treatments to use in these individuals," he said.
Given the lack of effective treatment options available for people with autism, the results of this study deserve a closer look. The good news is that sulforaphane is associated with very few side effects and is generally regarded as a safe chemical given its natural origins, according to Talalay.
But Hyman said she would not encourage families to administer sulforaphane without guidance from their doctor because it's unclear whether there are potential drug interactions and long-term side effects.
So should parents force their kids to eat more broccoli? Not so fast.
"It's very difficult to get this amount of broccoli in your diet," Talalay said. "You have to know which broccoli you're eating because the variability of [sulforaphane] is enormous."
Instead, he said he believes that the study provides "insight" into the mechanism of autism.
Dr.Crystal Agi is a medical resident embedded with the ABC News Medical Unit. Doctor's Take blogs explain the latest studies while offering residents' medical opinions.