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Brain: cocoa to improve memory and attention?

March 12, 2018

It is not only a temptation for the greedy, but also fuel for the brain. It is chocolate, which in recent years has deserved the attention of scientific research as a functional food. A recent study by the University of L’ Aquila, published in Frontiers in Nutrition, indicated cocoa as a potential dietary supplement with which to protect cognitive abilities even in the presence of mild forms of cognitive decline. The research work that had explored the effect of cocoa intake in the short and long term was analyzed, focusing in particular on the take-up of flavonols, a class of flavonoids, which are naturally present in cocoa. These are polyphenols that would have a beneficial effect on cardiovascular and neurological levels: “The alleged benefits of chocolate have been studied for a long time. This article collects the data that emerged from the most important studies on this subject over the last twenty years, and the picture that emerges is undoubtedly in favor of chocolate gourmets. In the reality of the facts, in addition to cocoa, we should be talking about foods containing flavonols, a sub-group of flavonoids, very powerful natural antioxidants. Chocolate is definitely one of these,” adds Dr. Raffaella Morini, researcher at Humanitas Neuro Center.

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In the scientific literature – she continues – it is possible to find solid results about the usefulness of flavonols in preserving the vascular endothelium. Cocoa can therefore be considered a valuable food in a preventive way, but always in addition to healthy lifestyles”.


The results of the analysis

In the studies analyzed, one had looked at the effect of flavonols’ contribution on different cognitive domains including attention, memory and executive functions, i.e. those skills that allow an individual to design, define objectives, implement such projects, control and modify their behavior. We have seen what happens to the brain a few hours after consuming cocoa and what could happen over time, with a regular contribution of cocoa flavonols.


Although there were not many randomized, controlled clinical trials conducted to assess the “acute” effect of flavonols, several studies indicated their beneficial effect on cognitive performance. In some studies, for example, participants had shown a stronger working memory and a better ability to analyze visual information. In addition, it was found that intake of flavonols in women was able to counteract the decline in cognitive performance after a blank night as well as the lack of accuracy in completing tasks.


The long-term consequences of flavonols intake, from five days to three months, had generally been analyzed in older individuals. In this case we have seen how, in the face of a daily intake of these substances, attention, the speed of processing information, working memory, lexical production (defined through a test that measures how many words can be produced in a given time) are reinforced. The benefits were most evident in older people with an initial mnemonic deficit or a slight cognitive decline.

More efficient brain activity

Why would cocoa have these effects? As it has already been demonstrated by many studies, the prevalent effect of flavonols is on vascular endothelium, i.e. the membrane that covers the inside of the blood vessels. Among the many activities, this structure has an important filter function regulating the passage of many important molecules. Improved endothelium functionality results in increased brain blood and nutrient inflow. The end result could therefore be an improvement in brain activity,” explains the researcher. In addition, in recent years there has also been a direct effect of flavonols on cognitive capacity and nerve cells. The flavonols are able to pass the blood-brain barrier and have been located in large quantities in cerebral areas crucial for functions such as memory and learning.


“Many studies show that the beneficial effects of these molecules on cognitive abilities may depend on their ability to interact and promote the expression of proteins involved in plasticity, neurogenesis and survival of the neurons themselves such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor BDNF. The study analyzes the effects of chronic or acute chocolate intake on young, old and more or less advanced patients with memory or cognitive deficits. Regular intake of flavonols, particularly in patients at risk, results in a protective and cognitive function enhancing action. Moreover, an immediate increase in performance in situations of fatigue, stress or sleeplessness is evident”.


Cocoa, the researchers conclude, could constitute a supplement to improve cognitive functions but attention must be paid to the possible side effects associated with its intake. The caloric intake of chocolate and the chemical compounds such as caffeine and theobromine, with their significant stimulating effects, are not negligible: “Beware of hasty decisions – concludes Dr. Morini. Chocolate, often being associated with sugars, cannot be consumed in large quantities. More or less, nutritionists agree that in the twenty grams per day (a couple of squares) we indicate the correct amount to take. Obviously it is better to melt it, with at least 70% cocoa.

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