Flavanols in cocoa improve brain vascular function, cognition in young, healthy adults, says new study
Flavanols are polyphenols belonging to a class of phytonutrients called flavonoids. This phytonutrient has antioxidant potential and so is considered highly beneficial.
The phytonutrient called flavanol is quickly gaining quite the reputation for its highly nutritive properties. Flavanols are polyphenols belonging to a class of phytonutrients called flavonoids. This phytonutrient has antioxidant potential and so is considered highly beneficial, especially because it can fight free radical damage in the body. A recent study indicates that flavanols in foods like apples and tea can help control blood pressure levels.
Now, a study published in Scientific Reports suggests that the flavanols in cocoa can boost vascular function in the brain and improve cognitive abilities in young and healthy subjects.
Previous research on cocoa flavanols
It’s important to note that this is not the first work of research that celebrates the benefits of cocoa flavanols but rather builds upon the base provided by many other studies published in recent years. A study published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology in 2013 shows that cocoa powder and chocolate contain a very high percentage of flavanols which are able to cross the blood-brain barrier and improve brain function. These flavanols are also believed to provoke various brain activities like angiogenesis, neurogenesis and neuron morphology in the regions of the brain associated with learning and memory.
Another study published in Frontiers in Nutrition in 2017 reveals that cocoa flavanols play a protective role by improving memory, attention, processing and cognition and may even prevent cognitive decline in ageing adults. What’s more, cocoa flavanols enhance the function of blood vessels and this vascular benefit also protects against cardiovascular diseases with age.
The new study in Scientific Reports takes cues from such studies and expands on the idea that if cocoa flavanols improve vascular function and benefit the heart, can they also improve vascular function in the brain and thereby improve cognition?
Brain vascular function in healthy adults
To examine if cocoa flavanols improve cerebrovascular function, linking them to improvements in cognitive functions, the researchers recruited 17 young subjects without any brain, heart, vascular or respiratory diseases. All subjects were also non-smokers. The researchers decided to select this group of subjects because they believed that the effects of cocoa flavanols on these individuals would show a more robust connection than in those who had diseases or health issues. Cerebrovascular activities of the participants’ brains were measured before the start of the study.
Once the study started, the participants underwent two separate trials. In one, they were given flavanol-rich cocoa and in the other, they received processed cocoa with very low flavanol content. Two hours after consuming the cocoa in each trial, the participants were given a standard test to challenge their brain vasculature: they were asked to breathe air with five percent carbon dioxide (which is 100% more than the normal concentration in our atmosphere).
This challenge spurs a reaction known as oxygenation, through which the blood flow is increased to the brain so that this vital organ can eliminate carbon dioxide. The researchers measured the oxygenation levels in the frontal cortex of the participants during this challenge. They also challenged the participants with complex tasks that required full support from the frontal cortex to see if oxygenation and proper cognition can be done at the same time without any major side effects.
Oxygenation and cognitive function responses
The researchers found that almost all the participants had a stronger and quicker oxygenation response after consuming flavanol-rich cocoa than they did after consuming low-flavanol cocoa. This oxygenation response was more than three times higher and almost one minute faster in the flavanol-rich cocoa trial. What’s more, the participants also performed better in the cognitive task challenges with their ability to solve complex problems becoming 11 percent faster than when they consumed low-flavanol cocoa. These exceptional results were found lacking in only four participants, who, the researchers found, already had excellent oxygenation speed before the start of the study.
The scientists, therefore, concluded that while those who are exceptionally fit may not have the same improvements in cerebrovascular and cognitive functions after consuming cocoa flavanols, those young adults who are healthy do show striking improvements. The researchers now hope to take these findings further to see if young adults who are not healthy have the same response to cocoa flavanols.
For more information, read our article on How to increase brain power.
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