Feeding your brain: new benefits found in chocolate

SAN FRANCISCO Sun Feb 18, 2007 5:03pm EST

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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - As if people needed another excuse to like chocolate, new studies suggest a specially formulated type of cocoa may boost brain function and delay decline as people age, researchers said on Sunday.

Scientists, speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco, presented results from early studies testing the effects on the brain of flavanols, an ingredient found in cocoa.

Funded by candy maker Mars Inc., which provided a specially formulated liquid cocoa concoction for the research, the studies suggest that flavanols increase blood flow to the brain and may hold promise for treating some vascular impairments.

Mars, a private company, has made a study of the health benefits of cocoa. Its CocoaVia line of chocolates, made with a process that retains flavanols, have been shown in clinical trials to have benefits for the heart.

The latest research also suggests benefits for the brain.

Ian Macdonald of Britain's University of Nottingham Medical School, conducted a small brain imaging study on young, healthy women to see whether flavanol-rich cocoa helped boost cognitive function during challenging mental tasks.

Although the beverage did not improve their performance on the tests, it did increase blood flow to their brains for a two to three-hour period, Macdonald said.

He believes more research might show that increased blood flow could benefit older adults and those who have cognitive impairments, such as fatigue or even mini-strokes.

A U.S. study of healthy adults over 50 also found a marked rise in blood flow. It was conducted by Harvard Medical School researcher Dr. Norman Hollenberg, who has studied the effects of cocoa and flavanols on Panama's Kuna Indian population.

Hollenberg believes that, while promising, the brain benefit needs to be verified.

"The only way we can prove something is working is a large clinical trial," he said.

Meanwhile, the researchers cautioned against rushing out to binge on the special Mars line of chocolates.

"It is a modest calorie load but it is a calorie load," Macdonald said. "As long as you are doing something to earn that 100 calories, then that's fine."

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