Wednesday, February 11, 2015

By: Danielle Branch

After seeing the effects on the body and the brain for himself, Daniel Cochece Davis of Illinois State University reveals that chocolate may boost learning. The lecithin in chocolate has the ability to make connections between two separate ideas. It is that familiar “aha” moment of learning that sneaks up on us. He reveals that it takes at least 30 minutes for the two separate neural pathways to converge into a neural network, leading to those “lightbulb moments.”

Davis, an assistant professor of communications at Illinois State University, studied the culinary arts and managed a bed and breakfast before coming to academia. In his previous experience, he also learned that caffeine does not help with studying. Caffeine, a stimulant, brings a large jolt to the system. Chocolate has a stimulant in the form of theobromine, but it is not as potent as caffeine. Theobromine soothes the body, helping students maintain their focus. Davis will be exploring this provocative subject in his research methods class at the university.

This is good news for students who want to improve their study habits and a boon to senior citizens as well. A Harvard study postulated that drinking two cups of hot cocoa for 30 days improves blood flow to the brain, ameliorating both memory and thinking skills in elderly adults with vascular dementia.

The concept of neurovascular coupling links the brain’s blood flow with its ability to remember and think. Different areas of the brain need different amount of blood flow to complete their tasks. Neurovascular coupling may be the key to unlocking the mystery surrounding cognitive decline.

In the study, 60 participants with an average age of 73, drank two different kinds of hot cocoa. Half drank a hot beverage high in flavanols while the other half drank a beverage low in flavanols, an anti-oxidant that fight free radicals. After a month, participants with impaired blood flow saw just over an 8 percent improvement. Amazingly, both the high and low flavanol beverages made a difference. This led research doctors Paul Rosenberg and Can Ozan Tan to hypothesize that the vascular effects of chocolate did not come from the anti-oxidant-rich flavanols but from the polyphenols, epicatechin, and resveratrol, all ingredients in chocolate that may boost learning.

Ironically, polyphenols are a subset of flavanol. They are rich in anti-oxidants and may help the body protect itself from disease. They offer the best protection when used undiluted. The cocoa bean contains the most prodigious amount of flavanols. You will also find polyphenols in coffee, green tea and pomegranate juice. Epicatechins are flavonoids found in abundance in grape skins, tea and coffee. Like polyphenols, flavonoids are a subset of flavanol, an anti-oxidant with strong anti-inflammatory properties. Resveratrol is also a polyphenol, previously studied for its ability to relax blood vessels. You will find resveratrol in peanuts and wine. Health food stores sell resveratrol supplements for those who do not wish to imbibe.

Recent experiments show that chocolate may boost learning by improving blood flow to the brain. Chocolate and hot cocoa high in flavanols, or not,  have the added benefit of protecting the body from disease. Of course, further studies need to be conducted and no one should begin a health regime without consulting a doctor, but a square of chocolate or sip of hot cocoa should not hurt.

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