BOSTON, Mass. – Sharon Dwelley says her son Ryan was a happy, normally developing baby.
"He'd speak in full sentences, he was clever, he was playful," said Dwelley.
But at 27 months old, something changed after a bug bite sent Ryan to the hospital with hives.
"He went from typically developing, talking, to not making eye contact. Not really using his language," said Dwelley.
Ryan was diagnosed with autism.
"It's been really hard. For him and for us," said Dwelley.
They tried medications and diet changes, but nothing seemed to help Ryan, until Dwelley found out about a new study testing sulforaphane.
"It was unbelievable. I noticed immediately that he had, you know, the decrease in his vocalizations," said Dwelley.
Sulforaphane is a compound found in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, kale and Brussels sprouts.
Dr. Andrew Zimmerman is a pediatric neurologist at UMass Memorial Medical Center. He says sulforaphane seems to mimic something called the "fever effect" in the body. It's what protects cells in times of stress.
"Sulforaphane is one compound that performs many of these functions by kick starting or up-regulating those functions in the cells," said Zimmerman.
The idea came from a previous study showing when children with autism get a fever, their symptoms improve.
"They're more sociable and they make more eye contact," said Zimmerman.
In the 18-week trial, 40 young men age 13 to 27 years old with moderate to severe autism got a daily dose of sulforaphane, extracted from broccoli sprouts, or a placebo.
By week four, researchers saw improvements in participants who were receiving the sulforaphane. Caregivers reported they were calmer and more sociable.
By the end of the trial, half of the participants had better social interactions and two-thirds showed improved behavior. Some made eye contact for the first time.
Experts stress it's not possible to eat enough vegetables containing sulforaphane to see the benefits reported in the study. About one-third of the participants had no improvement. Researchers say the study needs to be repeated in a larger group of adults and in children, something they hope to begin soon.
Once the trial ended and patients stopped taking sulforaphane, they reverted back to their old behaviors.
Dwelley was able to find another sulforaphane supplement on the market that's helped Ryan, now 17, maintain the positive changes he's made.
"It helped my son so much. It's enhanced his life and ours, too," said Dwelley.
To learn more about the research, click here.