Chocolate on My Mind

April 10, 2015

By Medical Discovery News


Peanuts creator Charles Schulz once said, “All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.” New research shows he might be right. In one study, certain compounds in cocoa called flavanols reversed age-related memory problems.

Flavanols, found in a variety of plants, are potent antioxidants that help cells in the body deal with free radicals. Free radicals arise from normal cellular processes as well as from exposure to environmental contaminants, especially cigarette smoke. Unless your body gets rid of free radicals, they can damage proteins, lipids, and even your genetic information. You can get flavanols from tea, red wine, berries, cocoa, and chocolate. Flavanols are what give cocoa that strong, bitter, and pungent taste. Cocoa is processed through fermentation, alkalization, and roasting among other methods, which can influence how much of the good flavanols are lost. Among the products made from cocoa, those with the highest levels of flavanol are cocoa powders not processed by the Dutch method, followed by unsweetened baking chocolate, dark chocolate and semi-sweet chips, then milk chocolate, and finally chocolate syrup contained the least.

In the latest study, a cocoa drink specially formulated by the Mars food company to retain flavanols was compared with another drink that contained very little flavanols. The study asked 37 randomly selected adults aged 50 to 69 to take one of the drinks. One group consumed 900 milligrams per day of flavanols and the others consumed only 10 milligrams per day for three months. Brain imaging and memory tests were administered before and after the trial.

Those who consumed the high levels of cocoa flavanols had better brain function and improved memories. Before the study, the subjects on average demonstrated the memory of a typical 60-year-old person. At the end, those who consumed more flavanols exhibited the memory capabilities more closely resembling a 30- to 40-year-old. Unfortunately, the average candy bar contains only about 40 milligrams of flavanol, so you would have to eat 23 of them a day to equal the amount of flavanol used in the study, which would lead to other health problems like obesity and diabetes.

Other studies have similarly revealed that high-flavanol cocoa beverages cause regional changes in the brain’s blood flow, suggesting that it could be used to treat vascular impairments within the brain. Flavanols have also been reported to reduce blood pressure and other factors that lead to cardiovascular disease, improve insulin sensitivity, modulate platelet activity thereby reducing the risk of blood clots, and improve the activities of the endothelial cells that line our blood vessels. The Kuna indians living on the San Blas Islands near Panama, who consume a type of cocoa rich in flavanol on a daily basis, have unusually low rates of hypertension, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes.

These studies need to be repeated with larger groups to confirm the benefits of consuming flavanols and to ensure that there are no negative effects. Still, if a cocoa beverage high in flavanols could be mass produced and marketed, we could improve human health in a very tasty way.

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Have Another Cup

By Medical Discovery News

May 19, 2012

I Own Myself... Don't I?

During the morning rush or the afternoon lull, Americans all seem to reach for a pick-me-up using the same thing – caffeine, whether it be coffee, soda or tea. The human love affair with caffeine dates back 500,000 years when Paleolithic man drank tea. While people today use caffeine as a stimulant, experiments have not been able to prove it actually improves cognitive performance, meaning it doesn’t help someone memorize or retain facts for an upcoming exam.

That hasn’t stopped scientists from studying caffeine to understand its effects on the brain. Now, a new report joins a short list of studies showing a shot of Red Bull could enhance mental acuity.  Serena Dudek of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Research Triangle Park, N.C., is co-author of the study. In experiments with rats, her team found caffeine jolts neurons in an area deep inside the brain responsible for forming, organizing and storing memory.

Caffeine alters brain chemistry because the molecule is small enough to enter the brain and interrupt normal nerve cell functions. In particular, it interferes with a process responsible for sleepiness. People get sleepy because as the day wears on, a chemical in the brain called adenosine builds up. This neurotransmitter protects the brain and keeps it from overworking by binding with nerve cells to slow their activity. As neurons slow down, a person gets sleepy; however, as they sleep, adenosine levels drop, which resets the sleep clock.

Caffeine interrupts this cycle by competing with adenosine for binding to nerve cells. Since caffeine is structurally similar, it can bind to nerve cells, blocking adenosine and stopping the sleep signal. Rather than slow down, the neurons keep working and, in Dudek’s study, they do so in an area of the brain not seen before.

When researchers gave rats the caffeine equivalent to two cups of coffee, a small amount compared with the massive doses used in other studies, they measured the electrical signals of neurons in an area of the hippocampus called CA2. The cells there responded with a huge burst of electrical activity, and the higher the dose of caffeine, the greater the response.

Scientists were able to replicate the experiment on CA2 nerve cells grown in a petri dish.  After only five minutes of exposure to caffeine, these nerve cells were still activated three hours later. If human CA2 neurons respond the same way, this area of the brain may be the most sensitive to caffeine.

The results suggest caffeine may temporarily stimulate mental sharpness and could have a role in learning, which makes sense because the hippocampus, a set of seahorse-shaped organs behind the ears, is responsible for organizing and developing memory. That’s why London cab drivers who learn incredibly complex traffic routes have an enlarged hippocampus.

The study’s results, though on rats, may give a better understanding of caffeine’s effects on the human brain. If caffeine does enhance memory, the 80 to 90 percent of Americans who swear by their daily caffeine habit have more reason to get another cup.

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