Chemicals in cocoa can improve our memories

Good news, chocolate fans: cocoa can improve our memories. A lot.

Scientific American has the scoop, but to summarise: research from Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons found that compounds in cocoa increase blood flow to the dentate gyrus. This is the part of the brain that allows us to tell different objects apart. After three months, the study found that a 60 year-old taking a high dose of cocoa phytochemicals had memory recall that equalled a someone twenty to thirty years younger.

In the past, neuroscientists had identified a link between the gyrus and memory loss, but hadn’t experimented with ways to reverse this process. Scott Small, a professor of neurology at Columbia, and his team tried the cocoa compounds, called flavanols, because a study showed they improved blood flow to this part of the brain in mice. Because they’re naturally-occurring rather than a drug, they’re safer to test on humans.

Their aim was only to find out what causes this blood flow increase, but they ended up improving participants’ memories in the process. But before you rush to the supermarket to stock up on Dairy Milk so that you never lose your keys again, you should probably know that Small says you’d need to eat 25 chocolate bars a day, every day, to get the same effect at home. That seems a little much. But with no commercially available supplement as strong as the one tested (900 mg), keeping up a moderate but steady intake may not be the worst move. (That’s not medical advice, just what I’m telling myself.)

Although cocoa could reverse age-related memory loss, it might not be useful against Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, because in those cases, brain cells die, rather than the connection between cells simply switching off, as with other memory issues. Small does however work in Alzheimer’s research and says that we’re getting closer to effective treatments.

His team is now planning a large-scale study to see if they can finally get to the bottom of how the flavanols improve blood flow and what the best dosage is, and whether the benefits continue after treatment stops. If they’re successful, perhaps a memory-boosting cocoa-based treatment will be on the cards (and shop shelves) before too long.

Image via Jayca’s Flickr.

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