By Dr. Crystal Agi
A chemical found in chocolate may improve brain function, according to a small new study released today by doctors at Columbia University.
Their research was partially funded by candy-maker Mars, Inc., and additionally supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the James S. McDonnell Foundation.
In the study, the doctors looked at 37 participants age 50 to 69. They gave half of them daily supplements containing 900 milligrams of cocoa flavanol, a chemical found in many types of chocolate. The other half got only 10 milligrams of flavanol a day.
The subjects then engaged in complex tasks designed to stimulate a part of the brain associated with memory that often declines as we age - the dentate gyrus. The researchers measured the time it took participants to complete certain tasks while monitoring the subjects' brain function using a specialized MRI machine, according to the study.
The researchers found that those in the high-flavanol group had improved reaction times and better blood flow to this part of the brain. The improvements they saw in brain function were so pronounced that they concluded high-flavanol supplementation was equivalent to adding back three decades of life.
Study author Dr. Scott Small, director of the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center at Columbia University, said he was "surprised" by the results, particularly when it came to the "specificity and the strength of (flavanol's) effect on the brain" - especially, he said, since his initial aim was just to confirm that this area of the brain was the true source of memory decline.
The results appear in the October issue of Nature Neuroscience.
Some experts not involved with the study said the findings support the idea that deterioration of the brain with age is preventable.
Dr. Richard Issacson, director of the Alzheimer's Prevention Clinic at New York Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Cornell Medical Center, said he believes the results of the study provide "definitive evidence that the cocoa flavanols are a safe and necessary approach when addressing brain health." He added that he thinks flavanols should even be considered a new option for the possible treatment and prevention of memory loss.
"There's a misconception that Alzheimer's is inevitable or losing one's memory is inevitable," Issacson said. "But one-third of all cases can be prevented by making the right dietary choices."
Is this study a slam dunk for chocolate as a brain-booster? Not quite - or at least not yet. Because the study focused only on healthy individuals, it is unclear whether those suffering from severe memory loss, like Alzheimer's disease, would improve with such treatment.
Think twice before reaching for your next candy bar. The amount of flavanol in one bar of chocolate is "miniscule," according to Small, who urged caution to those who think the results of the study mean they should eat more chocolate. At only 40 milligrams of flavanol per bar, he said, one would require "at least 20 chocolate bars" to come close to the amount of flavanol tested in the study.
At that amount, the downsides of chocolate - such as calories and fat - would likely outweigh the benefits.
Instead, Small said he hopes that one day someone will develop a diet or pill that contains that much flavanol. He said that solution just might become a reasonable treatment option for anyone suffering from memory decline.
Dr. Crystal Agi is a medical resident embedded with the ABC News Medical Unit. Doctor's Take blogs explain the latest studies while offering residents' medical opinions.