Sunday, October 19, 2014

Broccoli: A New Hope for Autism?

This week, the media reported some intriguing research that offers a potential new treatment for autism. As I have mentioned in previous blog entries, I follow autism research closely, hoping to find something that will help and possibly cure Alex. While these new methods of treating autism don’t always turn out to have the potential initially promised, I keep searching for the one that will, indeed, heal Alex. Whenever research from credible sources appears, I find myself especially missing Alex’s childhood doctor who passed away a few years ago. Whenever I would share research and ask her opinion, we would enthusiastically discuss the possibilities, and she would share her medical training to help me fully understand the biochemical mechanisms. Most often, she would finally proclaim, “Well, it’s worth a try because it’s certainly not going to hurt him.”

This new research, published this month in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests a somewhat surprising source of hope: broccoli. More specifically, a chemical found in broccoli sprouts known as sulforaphane may help improve conditions often associated with autism. The authors of the study, Dr. Paul Talalay, professor of pharmacology and molecular science at The Johns Hopkins University, and Dr. Andrew Zimmerman, professor of pediatric neurology at University of Massachusetts Medical Center, studied forty males with autism aged 13-27 for 18 weeks. Some were given pills containing sulforaphane, while others were given a placebo. [To read more about this research, please click here.]

Most of those who were given sulforaphane showed improvements in behavior, such as less irritability, fewer repetitive movements, and fewer problems with communication and motivation. These positive changes were evident to the families, friends, and medical staff, as parents described their sons as “calmer and more socially interactive.” The staff described them as, “much or very much improved,” and researchers noted their improved eye contact and willingness to shake hands, which were not evident when the study began. As Dr. Zimmerman stated, “This is by no means a ‘cure,’ but sulforaphane may ameliorate symptoms of autism.” Unfortunately, one third of the males did not show improvement, and even those who had shown improvement lost those gains when they stopped taking sulforaphane. In the placebo group, only 9% showed improvement in behavior, and none showed any improvement in their social and communication skills.

Why might this chemical found in broccoli help those with autism? Dr. Talalay explains, “We believe that this may be preliminary evidence for the first treatment for autism that improves symptoms by apparently correcting the underlying cellular problems.” Research has shown that people with autism often have biochemical abnormalities in their cells, such as oxidative stress, which can lead to inflammation and DNA damage. Sulforaphane may help improve the body’s own defense against oxidative stress, decreasing problems caused by inflammation. Another theory is that sulforaphane helps strengthen the “heat-shock response” that protects cells during high temperatures, triggering the same response in cells that fever does. Many parents of children with autism report that their children improve when they run fevers, and we have seen this phenomenon in Alex the few times he has run fevers. Essentially, this chemical found in broccoli may treat the cellular problems found in autism, eventually improving the symptoms of autism. Of course, since autism probably has various causes, some with autism will likely not respond to this treatment, as evidenced by those in the study who did not show improvements. As the researchers note, further studies need to be done.

The authors of the study caution that simply eating broccoli is not enough to bring positive changes. They note that the amount of sulforaphane can vary in different types of broccoli, and the ability to obtain this chemical from the vegetable can also vary, depending upon the person’s ability to digest it properly. In addition, this chemical is sensitive to heat; therefore, cooking can lessen its potency. Therefore, the best way to obtain sulforaphane is through supplements, and the amounts must be adjusted to the patient’s weight. Specifically, in their study, 9-27 milligrams per day were given.

Quite excited about this research, I wished that I could have discussed it with Alex’s former doctor. I decided to order a sulforaphane supplement to try with him since it was inexpensive and probably wouldn’t hurt him. However, I also decided to do more research on this supplement before actually giving it to him. One possible side effect of this antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound is that it may affect how quickly the liver breaks down some medications. Because Alex is on a variety of medications, I need to make sure that taking the supplement will not increase or decrease the effectiveness of his medications. Also, another study showed that sulforaphane has the potential to be a blood thinner because it may prevent blood platelets from clumping together. Since Alex is having oral surgery to remove his wisdom teeth in a few weeks, I don’t want to risk his having any bleeding complications from the surgery. Consequently, even though I’m anxious to see how he may respond to sulforaphane, I have decided to wait a little while to try it with him. However, if and when the time is right, I will be praying that this simple solution may be an answer to prayers, a hope for the cure we and many other parents of children with autism have sought for so long.

“I have given them to you for food, just as I have given you grain and vegetables.” Genesis 9:3


Dawn Marcotte said...

Thanks for sharing a Mom's point of view on the Broccoli idea - I have also seen a lot of information in the news and I agree that it is something to try - however I like your approach of getting all of the information before proceeding.

Of course what I am going to tell my daughter is that there is scientific proof that she should just eat her broccoli :)

Pam Byrne said...

Hi Dawn,
If you decide to try the broccoli supplement, I'd love to hear how your daughter does on it. We're waiting until Alex completely recovers from his oral surgery before we try it. Hopefully, this will cause a breakthrough in our kids and many others like them. :)
Take care,