Cocoa with the flow

I know how much everyone likes chocolate. (I even enjoy it myself on rare occasions.) So I’m always happy to see cocoa making headlines. Especially when they’re as promising as the ones I came across recently.

Turns out, drinking cocoa can boost the impact that blood flow has on your brain’s neuronal activity–a phenomenon known as neurovascular coupling (NVC).

If you’re wondering why you should care about NVC, you’re not alone. Even I didn’t know much about it before now. But this research makes quick work of showing why this factor is so very important.

Results showed that higher NVC is linked with better cognitive performance–not to mention stronger structural brain integrity–among elderly subjects with a compromised vascular system.

This means that we may have a way to detect dementia before it even starts–namely, by using NVC as a marker. And since this study also shows that NVC is modifiable (with interventions as simple as cocoa consumption, no less), it could lead to a potential breakthrough in how we manage and treat dementia.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s take a closer look at this study’s details.

It was a double-blind design that featured 60 elderly subjects. (Mean age was about 73 years old.) Roughly 90 percent of these subjects had well-controlled hypertension. Half had reasonably controlled type-2 diabetes. And three-quarters were either overweight or obese. (Probably a fairly good representation of the overall general population.)

Researchers randomly assigned subjects to two groups. One group had two cups of cocoa containing 609 mg of flavonoids per serving. (Flavonoids, you’ll remember, are the compounds responsible for chocolate’s high antioxidant status.)

The other group drank the same amount of cocoa, but with little flavonoids. (Only 13 mg per serving.)

Researchers also measured the level of blood flow to each subjects’ brain via sonogram, documenting changes at rest and in response to mental tasks. (That’s the NVC that I was talking about.)

As I mentioned earlier, results at the end of the 30 days revealed that NVC is strongly related to cognition. Higher levels linked with better test scores in the categories of both attention and memory.

This makes perfect sense, of course. The more you increase blood flow to your brain during a cognitive task, the better your cognitive performance will be.

But once again, NVC also directly correlated the structural integrity of subjects’ cerebral white matter. (That’s the part of the brain that changes first with dementia.) More specifically, higher NVC was linked to a lesser degree of damage–both visible and microscopic–to white matter overall.

It’s also important to note that the subjects’ response to cocoa appeared to depend significantly on their NVC status prior to the study.

Results showed that 89 percent of subjects with impaired NVC responded to “cocoa therapy” within 30 days. But only 36 percent of subjects with intact NVC saw benefits in the same time frame.

Among the former group, however, drinking cocoa was linked with an 8.3 percent boost in NVC by the end of the 30-day study. That’s pretty impressive for a mere month’s worth of hot chocolate.

But there was one thing that truly surprised me. The flavonoid content of the cocoa didn’t seem to affect responses.

That said, there were still 13mg of these beneficial polyphenols in the non-flavanoid group. So I suppose that could have been enough to throw off results. Only time–and more research–will tell.

In the meantime, who am I to stand in the way of a little extra brain power? By all means, bottoms up! Just stick with the purest cocoa product you can find. (I suggest 100 percent, if you’ve got it.)

Mix it with unsweetened almond or coconut milk, along with just enough stevia to cut the bitterness, and you’re good to go.

The resulting concoction is one of my favorite treats. Healthy, simple… and most definitely delicious.

Neurovascular coupling, cerebral white matter integrity, and response to cocoa in older people. Neurology. 2013 Aug 7.