April 12/Rome/Medical Daily -- A new study explains the molecular brain mechanisms by which cocoa compounds can protect the aging brain against neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

It is well established that chocolate contains pleasure-inducing and mood-enhancing chemicals, and previous studies have touted cocoa's rich antioxidant and brain-boosting properties. Recent studies have supported the ability of chocolate compounds called flavanols to protect neuron cells against degeneration and dementia. The new research confirms the antioxidant properties of polyphenols, the larger class of compounds that includes flavanols, and establishes how they work to protect the brain on a cellular level.

Researchers led by Annamaria Cimini of the University of L'Aquila in Italy created cellular models of Alzheimer's disease, treated with the Aß plaques and Aß peptides associated with neurodegeneration. Applying cocoa polyphenols to those cells triggered the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which promotes neuron growth and counteracts cell death caused by oxidative stress. 

"Our studies indicate for the first time the cocoa polyphenols do not act only as mere antioxidant but they, directly or indirectly, activate the BDNF survival pathway counteracting neuronal death" said Cimini in a statement.

The results, published in the Journal of Cellular Biochemistry, seem to confirm that flavanols in chocolate can indeed protect the brain from neurodegeneration, or at least slow it down.

Since the experiments were only conducted on isolated human cells, it is unclear how much cocoa powder is necessary or sufficient to gain the BDNF-boosting neuroprotective effects.

Still, the study confirms that at least moderate amounts of cocoa consumption can stave off cognitive impairment and neuronal death.

Other recent research has extended chocolate's health benefits to relieving persistent coughs, cutting heart attack and stroke risk.