Chocolate may protect the brain in a variety of ways

Consuming chocolate in moderate amounts has been shown to be potentially beneficial to physical health as it rich in antioxidants. Recent research now demonstrates that chocolate may also contain ingredients that are actually good for the brain.

One report published in the Journal of Cellular Biochemistry demonstrated that compounds in chocolate activate a neuroprotective pathway that has a direct effect on preventing the death of neurons. Neuron death is responsible for the escalating mental and physical impairment association with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.

A separate study published in American Heart Association’s journal Hypertension indicates that flavinols contained in cocoa were effective in reducing the effects of mild cognitive impairment in older adults.

Protecting against neuronal death 
Researchers from University of L’Aquila in Italy found that polyphenols, a class of chemical compounds found in cocoa products, stimulated the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in cells treated with beta amyloid plaque or beta amyloid oligomers treated.

Plaques, and their forerunners in the brain oligomers, are both associated Alzheimer’s disease.Beta amyloid is thought to disrupt the communication between neurons, ultimately leading to their death.

The neuroprotective pathway opened by the chocolate also reversed some of the plaque related damage, according to the report

“Our studies indicate for the first time the cocoa polyphenols do not act only as mere anti-oxidant but they, directly or indirectly, activate the BDNF survival pathway counteracting neuronal death” said study lead researcher Annamaria Cimini in a statement, according to Medical Daily.

Study researchers also noted that chocolate’s ability to stimulate the production of BDNF could also offer benefits such as cancer prevention, immune system boosting, pain relief and depression remediation.

Helping to alleviate mild cognitive impairment 
A separate study of 90 elderly participants with mild cognitive impairment found that daily consumption of cocoa flavinols – a sub-group of polyphenols – showed improved cognitive function in some areas.

Participants were divided into three groups that consumed either 990 milligrams, 520 mg or 45 mg of a dairy-based cocoa flavanol drink for eight weeks. Flavanol consumption from other sources was restricted during that time period. Cognitive function was then tested by evaluating short-term memory, long-term episodic memory, working memory, executive function, processing speed and global cognition.

The study found that those drinking higher levels of the flavanols scored much higher than those who consumed less.

“This study provides encouraging evidence that consuming cocoa flavanols, as a part of a calorie-controlled and nutritionally-balanced diet, could improve cognitive function,” said Dr. Giovambattista Desideri, M.D., study lead author. “The positive effect on cognitive function may be mainly mediated by an improvement in insulin sensitivity. It is yet unclear whether these benefits in cognition are a direct consequence of cocoa flavanols or a secondary effect of general improvements in cardiovascular function.”

The study also demonstrated that patients with the highest consumption rates also showed better working memory, verbal memory and  task-switching skills than those who consumed the medium flavanol amount.

Insulin resistance, oxidative stress and blood pressure were also showed to be lower among study participants who drank high and intermediate levels of flavanols daily.

Researchers noted that while the results are encouraging, additional studies will be required to validate the findings, particularly among individuals with health issues aside from cognitive impairment. Participants were all in otherwise good health during the study.

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