Brain Health,

#190: Sulforaphane with Dr. Jed Fahey

July 21, 2017

The first President Bush declared his War on Broccoli in 1990.

Two years later, in a public relations counterattack, Dr. Paul Talalay announced that he had isolated the phytochemical Sulforaphane from the embattled cruciferous vegetable.  It may not have seemed like much at the time, but over a quarter-century later, we’re still discovering new powers of this multifaceted compound.

Although humans have been dealing with the pollution of urban environments for just a few generations, our need to detoxify the air and water pollutants goes back a long, long way.  It’s a need that pre-dates humans by a few hundred million years.  The push to develop biochemical detox mechanisms reaches back to the emergence of land plants 700 million years ago.  Plants synthesize complicated molecules, many of them meant to thwart their primary predators (insects).  Oftentimes these same compounds, dosed properly, can prove a boon to the health of larger animals, spurring processes of detoxification and immune system vigilance.

Dr. Jed Fahey, a nutritional biochemist and Associate Professor at John Hopkins University, has devoted years of research to studying biochemical detoxification mechanisms and their relation to the plants we eat.  (And inevitably, the plants rodents eat, too; not all studies are human-appropriate.)  Much of his work examines underexploited food sources and the impact that these foods can have in the prevention of chronic disease.

Dr. Fahey also runs the Cullman Chemoprotection Center, where he and a team of researchers work to develop plant-based chemoprotective agents.  (See the links at the bottom of this post for more about Dr. Fahey and his research work.)

“Finish your vegetables!”

I can hear my mother’s voice when I call to mind all the times she heckled me to clean my plate of vegetables.  You may have experienced the same while growing up, and/or heard yourself saying something similar to your own kids.  As cliche as the practice may be — and unpersuasive to 10-year-olds — Dr. Fahey’s research has given this time-honored wisdom additional scientific heft.

The study of the plant compounds called “phytochemicals” is at the core of phytonutrient research.  Sulforaphane is a phytochemical present in cruciferous vegetables — especially broccoli, and even more especially, broccoli sprouts.  Dr. Fahey has conducted extensive research on this highly reactive (and highly promising) compound.

Glucoraphanin is the water-soluble precursor of sulforaphane found in broccoli sprouts.  This precursor is converted into sulforaphane by an endogenous enzyme called myrosinase, which is produced by microbes contained in the broccoli itself.  When we eat broccoli sprouts, chewing the sprouts causes their cells to rupture and for the hydrolysis (breakdown by water) of glucoraphanin to occur.  Myrosinase is released and glucoraphanin is synthesized into sulforaphane.

Why Sulforaphane?

Sulforaphane is of medical interest because of the cytoprotective (“cell-protecting”) functions that it encourages.  As of now, it is among the most potent naturally-occurring inducers of cytoprotective enzymes known to science.  A great deal of research is aimed at learning the mechanisms by which seems able to protect the body against chronic disease.

While Sulforaphane offers tantalizing hints that it may be not just “healthy,” but an actual therapeutic tool, its status as a naturally-occurring compound is something of a double-edged sword.  The astronomical cost of running human trials to validate its therapeutic usefulness against specific diseases is a major disincentive for an un-patentable compound, existing in the public domain as the extract of a common plant.

In Episode 190, Dr. Fahey walks us through not just the biochemical promise, but the bureaucratic brambles of how we can best make use of broccoli’s “secret ingredient.”

Further Reading:

Show Notes
  • 00:00:32

    Episode Introduction: Sulforaphane with Dr. Jed Fahey

  • 00:01:20

    This Week in Neuroscience: Chewing Is Good For The Brain

  • 00:03:27

    Smart Drug Smarts News + Updates

  • 00:05:21

    Dr. Jed Fahey + Broccoli + Sulforaphane

  • 00:06:41

    Interview Begins

  • 00:07:56

    Cruciferous Plants and Sulforaphane

  • 00:09:50

    Sulforaphane Isn't Formed By Precursor until... Mastication

  • 00:11:25

    What Makes Sulforaphane Beneficial?

  • 00:14:08

    Effects of Sulforaphane

  • 00:15:43

    NRF2 Pathway: Cellular Protection Pathway

  • 00:19:10

    Sulforaphane In The Brain

  • 00:24:58

    Sulforaphane & Inflammation

  • 00:28:21

    Other Benefits of Sulforaphane

  • 00:30:13

    Sulforaphane & Diabetes

  • 00:32:16

    The Future of Sulforaphane

  • 00:38:47

    Interview Wrap-Up

  • 00:39:55

    Ruthless Listener Retention Gimmick: Specific Genes for Insomnia

  • 00:41:58

    Episode Wrap-Up


  1. blair says:

    Since the APOE4 allele is associated with a primal inflammatory response, this podcast left wondering if the autistic children who responded positively to fever might be APOE4 homozygotes.

  2. ben says:

    I immediately thought of Dr. Rhonda Patrick when I saw this episode was on Sulforaphane! Since the myrosinase enzyme transforms glucoraphanin into (unstable) Sulforaphane, any idea what Dr. Jed Fahey thinks of broccoli sprout it effective/stable source of Sulforaphane? On Amazon, a pound can be purchased for $25, and seems more convenient than growing the sprouts or eating red kale, and more natural than taking extract pills. Which type of cauliflower contains Sulforaphane?

    Regarding how high fevers are often associated with autism improvement, there is a great book by VS Ramachandran called the Tell-Tale Brain.. in it (Chapter 5) he talks about the fever/autism connections as well as the Theory Of Mind, where mal-functioning mirror neurons may be responsible for autism. He talks about some interesting potential treatments including mu-waves (supression), MDMA, and prolactin/oxytocin.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to top