By Maggie Fox
A special type of concentrated cocoa drink seems to turn back the clock on memory, changing the brain and helping middle-aged people ace memory tests, researchers reported on Sunday.
Plant compounds called flavanols seem to be what does the trick, the team at Columbia University Medical Center report in the journal Nature Neuroscience.
"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," said Dr. Scott Small, who led the study.
It wasn’t hot cocoa that they drank, he cautions, but a proprietary drink made by Mars, Inc., which has also demonstrated that its flavanol-rich compounds can improve heart health.
It is not yet available on the market.
Small’s team tested 37 healthy volunteers aged 50 to 69, who either drank a high-flavanol diet (900 mg of flavanols a day) or a low-flavanol diet (10 mg of flavanols a day) for three months. Everyone got functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans and also memory tests at the beginning and after the three months.
"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," said Adam Brickman, an associate professor of neuropsychology who worked on the study.
“High cocoa flavanols cause an improvement in the area of the brain that’s affected by aging,” Small said.
“This very small trial highlights some possible effects of flavanols found in cocoa beans over a short time period, but we’d need to see much longer, large-scale studies to fully understand whether a diet high in these flavanols could boost cognition in old age,” said Dr. Simon Ridley, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK.
“We also don’t know how meaningful the improvements measured in the tests used here would be for people in their daily lives. This study didn’t look at dementia, and we can’t know from this research whether a diet high in cocoa would have any effect in either preventing or delaying the onset of the condition.”
And Small cautioned against using the findings to justify loading up on chocolate.
“It is true that cocoa flavanols are found in chocolate; however, only in small amounts,” he said. “Consuming a lot of chocolate is simply bad for your health.”