The brains of healthy adults recovered faster from a mild vascular challenge and performed better on complex tests if they consumed cocoa flavanols beforehand, researchers have reported in the Journal Scientific Reports.

Improvements in brain functioning were seen in 14 of 18 participants after consuming the flavanols during the research.

While previous studies have shown that eating flavanols rich foods benefit vascular function, but this is the first to find a positive effect on brain vascular function and cognitive performance in young healthy adults.

“Flavanols are small molecules found in many fruits, vegetables and cocoa, which give them their bright colours and are known to benefit vascular function,” a report quoted Catarina Rendeiro, a researcher and lecturer in nutritional sciences at the University of Birmingham who led the research with the University of Illinois.

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“We wanted to know whether flavanols also benefit the brain vasculature and whether that could have a positive impact on cognitive function,” Rendeiro said.

The team studied 18 participants before their intake of cocoa flavanols in two separate groups.

While one group consumed flavanol-rich cocoa and the other was given processed cocoa with very low levels of flavanols.

Neither the participants nor researchers knew which type of cocoa was consumed by each participant.

Two hours after consuming the cocoa, participants breathed air with 5 per cent carbon dioxide, which is about 100 times the normal concentration in air.

The body typically reacts to this by increasing the flow of oxygen rich blood to the brain, thereby eliminating more carbon dioxide, revealed the researchers.

The team measured oxygenation in the frontal cortex of the brain using functional near-infrared spectroscopy, a technique that uses light to capture changes in blood flow to the brain.

Researchers also challenged participants with complex tasks that required them to manage contradictory or competing demands.

“The levels of maximal oxygenation were more than three times higher in the high-flavanol cocoa consuming group than the low-flavanol cocoa one, and the oxygenation response was about one minute faster,” Rendeiro said.

After ingesting the cocoa flavanols, participants also performed better on the most challenging cognitive tests, correctly solving problems 11 per cent faster than they did at baseline or when they consumed cocoa with reduced flavanols.

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