Enhancing cognitive abilities has become a fascinating scientific challenge, recently driven by the interest in preventing age-related cognitive decline and sustaining normal cognitive performance in response to cognitively demanding environments. In recent years, cocoa and cocoa-derived products, as a rich source of flavonoids, mainly the flavanols sub-class, have been clearly shown to exert cardiovascular benefits. More recently, neuromodulation and neuroprotective actions have been also suggested. Here, we discuss human studies specifically aimed at investigating the effects of acute and chronic administration of cocoa flavanols on different cognitive domains, such as executive functions, attention and memory. Through a variety of direct and indirect biological actions, in part still speculative, cocoa and cocoa-derived food have been suggested to possess the potential to counteract cognitive decline and sustain cognitive abilities, particularly among patients at risk. Although still at a preliminary stage, research investigating the relations between cocoa and cognition shows dose-dependent improvements in general cognition, attention, processing speed, and working memory. Moreover, cocoa flavanols administration could also enhance normal cognitive functioning and exert a protective role on cognitive performance and cardiovascular function specifically impaired by sleep loss, in healthy subjects. Together, these findings converge at pointing to cocoa as a new interesting nutraceutical tool to protect human cognition and counteract different types of cognitive decline, thus encouraging further investigations. Future research should include complex experimental designs combining neuroimaging techniques with physiological and behavioral measures to better elucidate cocoa neuromodulatory properties and directly compare immediate versus long-lasting cognitive effects.
Keywords: cardiovascular function; chocolate; cognitive function; flavanols; neuroprotection.