A number of new studies presented yesterday (18 February) to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco have suggested that a specially formulated cocoa may be good for brain funtion.

The research, funded by chocolate-maker Mars, examined a liquid cocoa ingredient developed by the company to be rich in flavanols. The ingredient is currently used in Mars' CocoaVia line of 'healthy' chocolates and Dove Dark Chocolate. The studies, still in their early stages, have found that flavanols may improve blood vessel function - the benefits of which could be extended to the brain.

This is the latest in a line of research funded by Mars examining the health benefits of its CocoaVia range. Clinical trials have previously shown the specially formulated recipe also promotes heart health.

During the session, "The Neurobiology of Chocolate: A Mind-Altering Experience?", scientists shared evidence that the flavonal-rich cocoa increased blood flow to the brain. Dr Ian A. Macdonald, from the University of Nottingham Medical School, UK, went one step further, suggesting that the consumption of this cocoa resulted in regional changes in blood flow. The possible implication of this, Macdonald said, was that cocoa flavanols may have the potential to treat vascular impairments within the brain itself.

"Our study showed that acute consumption of this particular flavanol-rich cocoa beverage was associated with increased blood flow to grey matter for 2 to 3 hours," Macdonald said. "This raises the possibility that certain food components like cocoa flavanols may be beneficial in increasing brain blood flow and enhancing brain function among older adults or for others in situations where they may be cognitively impaired, such as fatigue or sleep deprivation."

However, while a US study conducted by Harvard Medical School researcher Dr Norman Hollenberg did find tenuous links between consumption of flavonols and reduced risk of heart disease and cancer, Hollenberg suggested that further research was necessary in this field.