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Chocolate component could reverse memory loss, study finds

Dutch process cocoa on the left and natural cocoa on the right.
Dutch process cocoa on the left and natural cocoa on the right.

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As if you need a reason to like chocolate, here's a good one: Something in it could reverse memory loss.

It's the key finding in a new study published in the latest issue of Nature Neuroscience.

The study linked a compound found in cocoa with improved memory in older adults.

For more, Take Two speaks with Dr. Scott Small, Director of the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center at Columbia University Medical Center and lead author on the study.



We're not talking about any old chocolate, right?

We are not talking about chocolate, period. That's a misperception I should clarify at the get go. We are talking about a derivative of cocoa beans. We gave our subjects a lot of these flavonols, so much so that you can't find that level in chocolate. So the message should be, as a physician, do not consume a lot of chocolate to try to replicate what we found in the study.

What are the flavonols doing?

We don't know for sure. What we do know from previous studies is they increase the connections and the strength of the connections in the very specific part of the brain that previous studies have suggested underlies age-related memory loss. Exactly how in the kind of molecular perspective is still unknown.

And the amount of flavonols you were giving were way more than anyone could find anywhere in any diet right?

Yes, to give you a sense, our subjects consumed 900 milligrams of cocoa flavonolos a day. In a typical chocolate bar, at best, there's 40 milligrams. So you'd have to eat 25 bars a day—not what I am recommending, not what the study is suggesting. So let's make that clear. Chocolate is good for many reasons, but not at 25 bars a day.

Tell us about the sample of people.

We were interested in normal aging so we looked at healthy people between the ages of 50 and 69.

What did you find?

When we compared subjects who consumed high flavonols versus those who consumed low flavonols we found a significant improvement in the function of this very small area in the brain that is thought to underlie age-related memory decline.

How did you measure that significant improvement?

We had to optimize a variant of functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) to detect small changes in this tiny area of the brain. We also needed to modify a cognitive test that we show is sensitive to function in this area of the brain.

What kind of improvement did you notice?

Numerically, on average, 60 year olds seemed like they were performing closer to 30 year olds. Although I caution, that's the kind of finding that really needs to be tested in our future studies when we apply these tools to a much larger sample.

It doesn't help with someone who has Alzheimer's or dementia?

We explicitly make the point that our study sample did not have Alzheimer's disease. I personally don't think it's going to help Alzheimer's, however our study didn't look at patients with Alzheimer's. It might, so I think that remains to be tested.

How could this research be used to further develop memory loss treatments?

The kind of, maybe, big story here is that it shows that dietary interventions can ameliorate age-related memory decline. I don't think we're quite there yet because we can't consume enough of these flavonols, but they are food products. In the future one can imagine how diet and lifestyle changes might be able to prevent or ameliorate age-related memory decline.

Would it be a good idea to try and increase the amount of flavonols in your diet?

I would love to give a practical recommendation based on our findings but it's not there yet. All I know is 900 milligrams of flavonols seem to have an effect. In our future studies, we're going to start looking at, can one see the same effect with much lower flavonols, perhaps the amount one can consume in a specifically designed diet.