While symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) typically appear during the first five years of life, it can sometimes be difficult to diagnose because of the broad range of symptoms. Due to the difference in range of abilities for children on the spectrum, it can also be a challenge to find the right treatment to help alleviate symptoms. What works for one child might not necessarily work for the other, and it can often take several attempts to determine what is most effective. This is reinforced by a common saying within the autism community: “If you meet one child with autism, you know about one child with autism.”
Although there have been several advancements in autism research over the years, there are still limited treatments or validated biomarkers for clinical use. With that said, a chemical produced in the body by components found in broccoli, known as sulforaphane, has demonstrated positive effects on children with autism in studies. Below, we’ll explore the science behind sulforaphane, as well as recent research as it relates to ASD.
The science behind sulforaphane
To fully understand how sulforaphane works, it is important to first take a step back and look at how inflammation has had a major impact on our health and quality of life. Many things can trigger inflammation, including cigarette smoke, gut microbiomes, pollutants in our air, water or food, and mental factors such as stress. Because of our environment and lifestyles, we constantly live with inflammatory signals arming our immune systems. This is noteworthy, as inflammation is now recognized as a significant cause or complicating factor in diabetes, obesity, cancer, depression, heart disease, and neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and ASD.
Epidemiological studies have previously shown a positive correlation between the consumption of fruits and vegetables and the promotion of good health. Sulforaphane is produced in the body by glucoraphanin (the sulforaphane precursor) and an enzyme called myrosinase, which can be found in broccoli, broccoli sprouts, and other cruciferous vegetables.
Sulforaphane supports the body’s natural detoxification process to fight against viruses and threats in the air, water, and food, in addition to oxidative stress and cell damage. For many, a way to de-stress is to go out and enjoy nature—take a walk, cycle, etc. A good way to think about sulforaphane is that it is like your cells’ nature walk. It removes stresses of all kinds at the cellular level.
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It’s worth noting that simply eating broccoli to induce the creation of sulforaphane is not necessarily effective. Some market stage produce offerings, due to cultivation and fertilization, may not contain much, if any, of both the sulforaphane precursor glucoraphanin and the myrosinase enzyme. Nutraceuticals such as Avmacol Regular Strength contain a standardized amount of these essential ingredients, which are often used when studying the impact of sulforaphane in clinical settings.
Impact of sulforaphane in clinical ASD research
Sulforaphane has been found to alleviate key behavioral manifestations of children and young adults with autism in previous research. A published pilot study by Zimmerman et al. analyzed biomarkers from three ASD-associated molecular pathways: redox metabolism/oxidative stress, heat shock response, and immune dysregulation/inflammation. These markers are known to be affected by sulforaphane.
Analyses were conducted using peripheral blood mononuclear cells from patients with ASD. Avmacol Regular Strength was chosen as it is a highly standardized promoter of sulforaphane production, has been used collectively in five ASD studies, and is commercially available, which makes it easy to obtain for both patients and caregivers.
Following the administration of Avmacol Regular Strength in patients with ASD, gene expression of cytoprotective enzymes decreased. The authors of the pilot study concluded that it: “represented our attempt to develop biomarkers and explore molecular basis of the treatment effects of sulforaphane on patients with ASD…these biomarkers, grouped by function as two panels, show promise in monitoring responses to treatments, and in providing guidance for the selection and efficacy of biomedical interventions.”
Studies are ongoing, including clinical research using Avmacol Extra Strength; its ingredients work to induce gene expression of studied Phase 2 enzymes more than Avmacol Regular Strength. We still have a long way to go when it comes to autism research, but the biomarkers identified in Zimmerman et al.’s pilot study—part of a large-scale clinical trial—could help guide intervention strategies, including the use of sulforaphane.
Biomarker Exploration in Human Peripheral Blood Mononuclear Cells for Monitoring Sulforaphane Treatment Responses in Autism Spectrum Disorder
Zimmerman et al. (2020) https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-62714-4
This article was featured in Issue 113 – Transitioning to Adulthood