The Cognition of Cocoa

Edited by Tanmaya Ramprasad 

Chocolate consumption, cognitive function, and Nobel laureates.

Upon first glance, one of these might seem to be the odd one out. After all, what does eating a mouth-watering dessert have to do with winning a Nobel Prize?

Well, according to this 2012 paper, it might have more of an effect than one might think. After all, as argued by Dr Messerli, 63% of the variance in the number of Nobel laureates can be explained by chocolate consumption alone.

Why might that be the case? After all, from the time that we’re children, we’re told to limit our chocolate consumption: to reduce our intake of the sugary snack, and reach for something healthier — an apple, an orange, a cup of fruit — instead.

Yet look past its seductive, silky-smooth exterior, and one might find a sweet surprise.

Society claims that chocolate is for celebrations: best consumed in moderation, only savoured as a treat. But sciencescience disagrees.

Beneath its “unhealthy” bad rep, this dessert is full of physical benefits.

Most notably, chocolate — like all cacao-derived substances — is rich in flavanols: strong anti-oxidants that protect against free radicals.

Free radicals, or the single-oxygen by-products of simple, everyday metabolism, are highly damaging substances; left unchecked, they can act as carcinogens, lead to cardiovascular disease, and even play a role in accelerated ageing. Of course, your body does produce natural anti-oxidants to combat these — but not nearly enough to catch each and every one of them. Sometimes, a free radical may escape — and wreak its havoc on the body.

This, however, can be remedied with chocolate. By contributing new flavanols, it provides the immune system with sufficient anti-oxidants, fortifying its defence against free radicals (thus eliminating their adverse effects).

For years, this function of flavanols has been touted journalistically. Its bodily benefits have been reported across various press junkets, and health educators consistently preach the importance of dark chocolate on cardiovascular health.

Yet there's one aspect of chocolate that often goes overlooked: its influence on neurological functions.

After all, flavanols aren’t the only defence against heart failure and ageing — they’re also thought to play a major role in cognition and behaviour.

When Messerli made his 2012 claim that chocolate consumption and intellectual prowess might possess a strong connection, it was as if Pandora’s box sprung open. Suddenly, scientists around the world began to wonder: did a causal relationship between the two actually exist?

Fourteen months after Messerli’s initial claim, Solokov et al. published a review suggesting that chocolate may contain more benefits than previously expected. According to novel animal studies, cocoa flavanols are some of the select few molecules able to cross the blood-brain barrier, allowing them to induce hormonal signalling by stimulating blood circulation in the brain. This allows hormones to traverse their paths much quicker, resulting in an increased speed of signalling — and thus faster, stronger and more powerful learning and memory abilities. This also allows more oxygen to be transported throughout the bloodstream, providing neurons with the essential nutrients they need to function (and removing waste before it can dangerously accumulate).

Further studies suggest that flavanols are also able to interact with mitogen receptors in the brain, triggering signal cascades that increase transcription of vital, protein-coding genes. The genes transcribed are then able to activate Long-Term Potentiation (a phenomenon that strengthens neural connections, allowing long-term memories to be created) and create neurotrophic factors (including BDNF, which promotes neuron creation and survival).

Incredibly, cocoa-derived products have even been shown to counteract neurological declines — be this due to neurological disease, ageing, or short-term phenomena such as lack of sleep. In fact, one sample of sleep-deprived Italian women regained near-perfect cognitive performance after enjoying a chocolate treat, suggesting that a simple bar of chocolate might be the perfect, inexpensive, and widely-available treatment for those suffering from chronic sleep disorders.

These findings are remarkable. Might dark chocolate be the “miraculous cure” for a handful of diseases? Could a Hershey’s Special Dark boost your neurological performance?

Scientific evidence suggests this is the case — and from a psychological perspective, chocolate possesses even more revolutionary benefits.

Consider the components in a chocolate chip — the chemical compounds that comprise one little bean of cacao. First, there’s tryptophan: a precursor to serotonin, and a stepping stone towards increased contentment and joy. Caffeine: a psychoactivator, enhancing neurological alertness, attention and focus. Phenylethylamine, the precursor of dopamine: the neurotransmitter that stimulates motivation and pleasure. 

Wakefulness. Attention. Relaxation. Bliss.

Are these not the neurological states we’re constantly attempting to attain? Are these not our lifelong goals — to increase positivity, performance, and quality of life?

There’s a reason chocolate is so well-loved — by children and adults alike. It’s why I shake Smarties into my popcorn, and snack on a handful of dark chocolate while studying for exams. It’s why it’s consistently touted as the most popular sweet treat in the world, its name (“Theobroma cacao”) literally translating to “food of the Gods”.

Not only is it delicious, but it sure seems to be nutritious — for your body, and your brain.

Marie Antoinette supposedly cried “let [them] eat cake”… well, I say, “let them eat chocolate.”