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Study shows cocoa, other flavanol-rich foods can boost brain power

Photo: sefa ozel/iStockphoto

Birmingham, England — A mug of hot chocolate can provide not only a bit of warmth, but also a cognitive boost – thanks to a group of compounds in cocoa called flavanols, results of a recent study led by British researchers show.

Flavanols are a subgroup of plant flavonoids that are also found in grapes, apples, tea, berries and other foods. They are known to have a beneficial effect on heart health.

In partnership with researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, scientists from the University of Birmingham found that among 18 healthy male study participants between the ages of 18 and 45, those given a cocoa drink with high levels of flavanols completed high-intensity cognitive tasks 11% faster than their counterparts who were given drinks without flavanols. Additionally, the participants who drank the flavanol-enriched cocoa had blood oxygenation levels that were three times higher than those who drank the non-flavanol-enriched drink. The former group also achieved higher oxygenation levels a minute faster than their counterparts.

“Our results showed a clear benefit for the participants taking the flavanol-enriched drink – but only when the task became sufficiently complicated,” Catarina Rendeiro, a lecturer in nutritional sciences at the University of Birmingham, said in a press release. “We can link this with our results on improved blood oxygenation – if you’re being challenged more, your brain needs improved blood oxygen levels to manage that challenge. It also further suggests that flavanols might be particularly beneficial during cognitively demanding tasks.”

Among the participants given the flavanol-enriched drink, a small group didn’t experience increased oxygenation levels or exhibit cognitive benefits. This group was found to already have high blood oxygenation levels that didn’t increase further after drinking the enriched cocoa.

This small group “gives us additional evidence to confirm the link between increased brain blood oxygenation and cognitive ability,” Rendeiro said.

“By better understanding the cognitive benefits of eating these food groups,” she added, “we can offer improved guidance to people about how to make the most of their dietary choices.”

The study was published online Nov. 24 in the journal Scientific Reports.

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