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Cocoa contains bioactive ingredients -called flavanols –which have the ability to reverse memory decline that comes with age, according to a new study published by the journal Nature Neuroscience.

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The new study was applied on a group of volunteers aged 50 to 69, after having a daily cup of specially-prepared cocoa. The scientists at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) that published the results found that increasing dietary cocoa flavanols can improve brain function and even lead to better scores in memory tests.

The team of scientists, who were led by Adam M. Brickman of Columbia University’s Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer’s Disease and the Aging Brain, said that this study is the first to reveal a ‘causal link’ between ingested flavanols and changes in memory and brain function.

Memory tests were executed before and after the volunteers started with the drink. Age-related memory decline is linked to the dentate gyrus region of the hippocampus which is a different part of the brain than the one affecting people with early Alzheimer’s or other neurodegenerative diseases. The dentate gyrus is the region of memory formation whose performance typically declines as one ages.


Image credit: Lab of Scott A. Small – the press-release

According to the study, a group of 37 healthy volunteers aged from 50 to 69 were randomly divided in two. The first one drank the cocoa with 900mg of flavanols, while the other with only 10mg. The experiment lasted for 3 months.

The Huffington Post reported:

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“The high-flavanol group notched up major memory improvements and an increase in blood flow to the dentate gyrus.”

The senior author Scott Small, a professor of neurology at Columbia University’s Medical Center in New York, said in a press release:

“If a participant had the memory of a typical 60-year-old at the beginning of the study, after three months that person on average had the memory of a typical 30 or 40-year-old.

I suppose that our study does show, for the first time, that flavanols improves the function of humans’ dentate gyrus, particularly in ageing humans.”

However Professor Small also warned that much larger studies are needed to confirm the findings. So, the next step for the researchers is to test it on larger groups in order to better understand the relationship between flavanols, the hippocampus, and memory. You can found out about the experiment in the following video:

Discussing the same idea, Alice G. Walton wrote in Forbes:

“Previous studies have suggested similar effects, however, and a separate study at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston is currently testing the effects of flavanols on cardiovascular health. Flavanols including epicatechin are also found in tea, apples, grapes, blackberries and cherries. Mars already markets a flavanol-rich supplement called CocoaVia.”

On the other side, the scientists had to clarify the difference before and after applying the study, that’s why the volunteers had to pass special memory tests – a 20-minute pattern-recognition exercise, designed to assess a type of memory controlled by the dentate gyrus. After scanning the brains of the 37 volunteers, the results were very satisfying.

 Image credit: Columbia University Medical Center

Image credit: Columbia University Medical Center

The lead author Adam M. Brickman said:

“When we imaged our research subjects’ brains, we found noticeable improvements in the function of the dentate gyrus in those who consumed the high-cocoa-flavanol drink.”

The research was supported by a large US food corporation, Mars, Inc., which prepared the drink and also funded the study in part.

During his talk with The Independent, cognitive neuropsychologist Dr. Ashok Jansari said:

“Given a globally ageing population, by isolating a particular area of the brain that is weakening in functioning as we grow older, and demonstrating that a non-pharmacological intervention can improve learning of new information, the authors have made a significant contribution to helping us improve our cognitive health.”

Experts have added that the study does not mean people should eat more chocolate, as the product used in the experiment was a specially made drink formulated from cocoa beans. Chocolate is not a great source to get the compounds we need.

A more appropriate dark chocolate will usually have from 45 to 80% cocoa, while the chocolate found in the average candy bar has only 5 to 7%. Future studies may explain more about this particular issue, and maybe, in coming years we will see stores with new kinds of high-potency cocoa products.


(1) Nature

(2) The Huffington Post

(3) Forbes

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