Dramatic Memory Improvement in Seniors from Cocoa
First evidence one component of age-related memory
decline is caused by changes in a specific region of the brain, and can
Oct. 26, 2014 - Dietary cocoa flavanols - naturally
occurring bioactives found in cocoa - reversed age-related memory
decline in healthy older adults, according to a study published today in
the advance online issue of Nature Neuroscience. The study saw
participants with the memory of a typical 60-year-old at the beginning
of the study, improve to that of a 30 or 40 year old after only three
The research led by Columbia University Medical
Center (CUMC) scientists provides the first direct evidence that one
component of age-related memory decline in humans is caused by changes
in a specific region of the brain and that this form of memory decline
can be improved by a dietary intervention.
As people age, they typically show some decline in
cognitive abilities, including learning and remembering such things as
the names of new acquaintances or where one parked the car or placed
one's keys. This normal age-related memory decline starts in early
adulthood but usually does not have any noticeable impact on quality of
life until people reach their fifties or sixties.
Age-related memory decline is different from the
often-devastating memory impairment that occurs with Alzheimer's, in
which a disease process damages and destroys neurons in various parts of
the brain, including the memory circuits.
Previous work, including by the laboratory of
senior author Scott A. Small, MD, had shown that changes in a specific
part of the brain - the dentate gyrus - are associated with age-related
memory decline. Until now, however, the evidence in humans showed only a
correlational link, not a causal one.
To see if the dentate gyrus is the source of
age-related memory decline in humans, Dr. Small and his colleagues
tested whether compounds called cocoa flavanols can improve the function
of this brain region and improve memory. Flavanols extracted from cocoa
beans had previously been found to improve neuronal connections in the
dentate gyrus of mice.
Dr. Small is the Boris and Rose Katz Professor of
Neurology (in the Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer's Disease and
the Aging Brain, the Sergievsky Center, and the Departments of Radiology
and Psychiatry) and director of the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center
in the Taub Institute at CUMC.
A cocoa flavanol-containing test drink prepared
specifically for research purposes was produced by the food company
Mars, Incorporated, which also partly supported the research, using a
proprietary process to extract flavanols from cocoa beans. Most methods
of processing cocoa remove many of the flavanols found in the raw plant.
In the CUMC study, 37 healthy volunteers, ages 50
to 69, were randomized to receive either a high-flavanol diet (900 mg of
flavanols a day) or a low-flavanol diet (10 mg of flavanols a day) for
Brain imaging and memory tests were administered to
each participant before and after the study. The brain imaging measured
blood volume in the dentate gyrus, a measure of metabolism, and the
memory test involved a 20-minute pattern-recognition exercise designed
to evaluate a type of memory controlled by the dentate gyrus.
"When we imaged our research subjects' brains, we
found noticeable improvements in the function of the dentate gyrus in
those who consumed the high-cocoa-flavanol drink," said lead author Adam
M. Brickman, PhD, associate professor of neuropsychology at the Taub
The high-flavanol group also performed
significantly better on the memory test.
"If a participant had the memory of a typical
60-year-old at the beginning of the study, after three months that
person on average had the memory of a typical 30- or 40-year-old," said
Dr. Small. He cautioned, however, that the findings need to be
replicated in a larger studywhich he and his team plan to do.
Flavanols are also found naturally in tea leaves
and in certain fruits and vegetables, but the overall amounts, as well
as the specific forms and mixtures, vary widely.
The precise formulation used in the CUMC study has
also been shown to improve cardiovascular health. Brigham and Women's
Hospital in Boston recently launched an NIH-funded study of 18,000 men
and women to see whether flavanols can help prevent heart attacks and
The researchers point out that the product used in
the study is not the same as chocolate, and they caution against an
increase in chocolate consumption in an attempt to gain this effect.
Two innovations by the investigators made the study
possible. One was a new information-processing tool that allows the
imaging data to be presented in a single, three-dimensional snapshot,
rather than in numerous individual slices. The tool was developed in Dr.
Small's lab by Usman A. Khan, an MD-PhD student in the lab, and Frank A.
Provenzano, a biomedical engineering graduate student at Columbia.
The other innovation was a modification to a
classic neuropsychological test, allowing the researchers to evaluate
memory function specifically localized to the dentate gyrus. The revised
test was developed by Drs. Brickman and Small.
Besides flavanols, exercise has been shown in
previous studies, including those of Dr. Small, to improve memory and
dentate gyrus function in younger people.
In the current study, the researchers were unable
to assess whether exercise had an effect on memory or on dentate gyrus
"Since we didn't reach the intended VO2max (maximal
oxygen uptake) target," said Dr. Small, "we couldn't evaluate whether
exercise was beneficial in this context. This is not to saythat exercise
is not beneficial for cognition. It may be that older people need more
intense exercise to reach VO2max levels that have therapeutic effects."
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