Is Chocolate the New 'Brain Food'?

In individuals with mild cognitive impairment, daily cocoa flavanol consumption was tied to cognition improvements
In individuals with mild cognitive impairment, daily cocoa flavanol consumption was tied to cognition improvements

Daily consumption of chocolate may imbue natural neuroprotective benefits especially among elderly individuals, according to a new review published in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition.

Researchers from the University of Rome and the University of L'Aquila, Italy, analyzed published studies which examined the effects of cocoa flavanols on cognitive performance. Flavanoids are a class of polyphenolic compounds which are increasingly being investigated for their beneficial biological effects; they have been shown to counteract neuronal injury through their interaction with signaling proteins.

The researchers found that daily consumption of a flavanol-rich cocoa drink improved cognitive performance and verbal fluency. In individuals with mild cognitive impairment, daily administration of 520mg (intermediate) and 993mg (high) of cocoa flavanols over 8 weeks was found to correspond with improvements in processing speed, executive function, and working memory when compared to groups who received 48mg of the cocoa flavanol drink (Desideri et al. and Mastroiacovo et al). 

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A more recent study (Neshatdoust et al.) found that brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) levels increased in line with cognitive performance following chronic administration of cocoa flavanols. The 12-week study found that a 494mg daily cocoa flavanol drink enhanced global cognition scores significantly compared to participants in a low-dose, 23mg daily cocoa flavanol drink.

“Collectively, these findings seem to support quite consolidated epidemiological evidence indicating that regular cocoa flavanols intake possesses the potential to protect human cognition, particularly in aged populations,” write the authors.

Other studies focused on and also highlighted cognitive benefits that occurred within 6 hours of ingesting the cocoa flavanol drink. Compared to a group of controls drinking cocoa containing 46mg of flavanols, groups who consumed 520mg and 994mg significantly improved their working memory performance (Scholey et al).

Although the authors noted that limited research is available in this area, they concluded that the accumulated evidence would suggest that cocoa flavanols can be “effective at sustaining cognitive performance, leading to improvements in measures of general cognition, attention, processing speed and memory.” They also encourage the instigation of further studies in this area.

For more information visit frontiersin.org.