Recent study identifies biomarkers for response to sulforaphane treatment in boys with autism

Autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, is a neurodevelopment disorder characterized by impaired social interaction and communication, as well as restrictive, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, and activities. Clinical trials have demonstrated that sulforaphane from broccoli sprouts reduces the characteristic behaviors associated with ASD. A recent study conducted at the Cullman Chemoprotection Center as a subcontract to a US Department of Defense-sponsored clinical trial has identified biomarkers for monitoring the body’s response to sulforaphane among children with ASD.

Biomarkers are measurable indicators of biological processes in the body. They can indicate the presence of disease or how the body responds to dietary components or drugs.

The team wanted to identify potential biomarkers from key biological pathways that sulforaphane is known to influence. These pathways, which regulate the body’s response to oxidative stress, heat shock, and immune function, are often dysregulated in people who have ASD.

“Presently, the diagnosis for ASD is based purely on phenotype and there are no validated or credible laboratory tests available,” says Dr. Hua Liu, the first author of the study. “Evidence-based treatments are limited, and there is no approved medical therapy to address either core ASD symptoms or the biochemical processes associated with the condition.”

The clinical team involved in the study – led by Dr. Andrew Zimmerman at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center – drew blood from ten boys with ASD (aged 6 to 12 years) before and after a 14-day course of treatment with an oral supplement that delivers sulforaphane. Then the team at the Cullman Chemoprotection Center isolated peripheral blood mononuclear cells (a type of blood cell with a single nucleus) from the boys’ blood. They analyzed the mRNA (a proxy for protein levels) in the cells to gauge the boys’ response to treatment.

They found that mRNA levels for cellular protective enzymes and heat shock proteins in the cells increased with sulforaphane treatment. The mRNA levels of several pro-inflammatory proteins decreased, however. “These findings, and future findings in the main intervention, are aimed at assessing the functioning of a variety of target pathways,” says Dr. Jed Fahey, senior author of the study.

Dr. Zimmerman added, “This could ultimately guide the development of novel treatment strategies – including nutritional interventions – to correct the biochemical abnormalities commonly seen in children with ASD and thus possibly improve the symptoms associated with the condition.”


Teresa Johnson