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Study after study has found an association between chocolate and some kind of cognitive enhancement. As far as brain foods go, chocolate takes the cake, with scientists finding it improves memory function and delays age-related memory decline. Now, two new studies have found that chocolate — dark chocolate, to be more precise — may not only boost memory and cognition but the immune system and mood, as well.

The bitter brain booster

Both studies were conducted by researchers at Loma Linda University, California, and were presented at the Experimental Biology 2018 annual meeting this week in San Diego.

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In the first study, healthy volunteers were asked to ingest 48 grams of dark chocolate — the equivalent of a chocolate bar — and then had their brains scanned with EEG 30 minutes and 60 minutes after eating the chocolate. The brain scans showed that gamma waves increased in various areas of the cortex, particularly in those regions involved in cognition and memory. The changes were significant during the first measurement but returned to normal during the second one, suggesting the positive effects of dark chocolate on the brain don’t last more than an hour.

 “We suggest that 48 g 70% cacao consumption with a concentration of antioxidant activity…is associated with subsequent [gamma wave] increase in the cerebral cortical brain,” the authors write. “We suggest that this superfood of 70% cacao (organic cocoa beans from Tanzania) enhances neuroplasticity for behavioral and brain health benefits.”

In the second study, volunteers ingested the same variety and quantity of chocolate as above, only they did so every day for a week. They also had to abstain from high-antioxidant foods in the days leading to the study. Researchers sampled the blood of each participant shortly after they had eaten the chocolate, in order to sequence their genes.
This analysis showed that genes that are involved in the immune response, such as those known to activate white blood cells, became boosted as a result of ingesting dark chocolate. Meanwhile, genes linked to inflammation had a reduced expression. What’s more, the expression of genes known to be involved in neural signaling and sensory perception also increased.
For many years, scientists used to think that chocolate bars influence neurological functions because of their sugar content — the more sugar in the chocolate, the happier we are. But this is a gross simplification that doesn’t capture the full picture. Instead, the researchers say that the neurological benefits of cocoa can be directly traced to its polyphenols or antioxidants.
The new findings are important because they suggest that even relatively small portions of bitter chocolate can have measurable effects on our moods and cognitive abilities. As a caveat, both studies only involved ten participants, which may prove to be a far too small sample size to draw meaningful conclusions. In the future, the researchers plan on involving more participants in the study and tweaking the dosage to see just how much dark chocolate someone should each to expect measurable results.
“This is the first time that we have looked at the impact of large amounts of cacao in doses as small as a regular-sized chocolate bar in humans over short or long periods of time, and are encouraged by the findings,” said Lee Berk, main investigator on the studies and an associate dean of research affairs at Loma Linda University’s School of Allied Health Professions.
“These studies show us that the higher the concentration of cacao, the more positive the impact on cognition, memory, mood, immunity and other beneficial effects,” the researcher added, who confesses he eats some dark chocolate every day.