12 January - 20 June 2016

Can consuming cocoa flavanols enhance human cognition?

A review published in Frontiers in Nutrition has examined the available literature for the effects of acute and chronic administration of cocoa flavanols on different cognitive domains.

A review published in Frontiers in Nutrition has examined the available literature for the effects of acute and chronic administration of cocoa flavanols on different cognitive domains.  The Italian scientists report that cocoa and cocoa derived products are a rich source of flavanols which have already been found to have cardiovascular benefits and more recently neuroprotective actions.

Socci et al. examined the neuroprotective mechanisms of cocoa flavonoids and note that very low concentrations of flavonoids have been detected in the brain which they state indicates that “it is unlikely that direct antioxidant can entirely account for cognitive effect in vivo.”  They suggest the neurobiological effects may be mediated by a number of actions including “the ability to protect vulnerable neurons, enhance neuronal function and stimulated regeneration.”

The team continue in their review to examine evidence on the effects of daily intake of cocoa flavanols on cognition and note that whilst there are only a few randomised control trials investigating the acute effect of cocoa flavonoids, the majority indicate a beneficial effect on cognitive performance.

The scientists reviewed studies that examined the long-term effect of flavanol consumption (5 days up to 3 months) and found that the majority of the studies focused on elderly adults.  Socci et al report that these studies found that a daily intake of cocoa flavonoids improved cognitive performance, resulting in improvements in attention, processing speed, verbal fluency and working memory.   They state that these findings were more visible in elderly adults who had mild cognitive decline or other mild cognitive impairments.  One study involving 90 participants with mild cognitive impairment found that the participants who consumed either an intermediate flavanol (520 mg) or a high flavanol drink (containing 993 mg) daily, compared to consuming a low flavanol drink over 8 weeks showed improvement in processing speed, executive function and working memory.  This study also found improvements in the subjects’ blood pressure and insulin resistance. 

Similar results were seen in a study involving healthy aged participants.  Those who consumed either a drink intermediate or high in flavanols over 8 weeks, showed better performance in several cognitive tests compared to those in a low flavanol group. One study found no difference in cognitive performance between a healthy aged placebo and polyphenol groups who consumed a chocolate bar, containing 397 mg flavanols, or chocolate drink containing 357 mg flavanols, although Socci et al. suggest that due to the lower amounts administered, “insufficient flavanol content may therefore account for the negative finding.”  The scientists report that improvements therefore are dose dependent.

Socci et al. also report on a study which found for women, cocoa flavanols could help those who suffered from cognitive impairment caused by a night of sleep deprivation. They note that these could be promising results for night shift workers. 

In conclusion, Socci et al acknowledge the limited number of studies but state that “the evidence accumulated so far suggests that cocoa flavanols administration can be effective at sustaining cognitive performance.” They continue by suggesting that cocoa could be a “new interesting nutraceutical tool” and note that future research needs to be done.

RSSL can carry out simple flavonoid screens. For more information please contact Customer Services on +44 (0) 118 918 4076 or email enquiries@rssl.com

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