Move over coffee, and make way for dark chocolate. New research shows that eating a piece of dark chocolate activates the brain to increase attention levels.

“Chocolate is indeed a stimulant and it activates the brain in a really special way,” said Dr. Larry Stevens, a professor of psychological sciences at Northern Arizona University (NAU). “It can increase brain characteristics of attention, and it also significantly affects blood pressure levels.”

Stevens said his team wanted to investigate whether people who eat chocolate would experience an immediate stimulant effect.

The study is the first to observe the effects of chocolate on attentional characteristics of the brain and the first-ever study of chocolate consumption performed using electroencephalography (EEG). EEG studies take images of the brain while it is performing a cognitive task and measure the brain activity.

Chocolate is generally recognized as a vasodilator, meaning that it widens blood vessels and lowers blood pressure in the long run, but chocolate also offers some powerful stimulants.

“A lot of us in the afternoon get a little fuzzy and can’t pay attention, particularly students, so we could have a higher cacao content chocolate bar and it would increase attention,” Stevens said. He added that a regular chocolate bar high in sugar and milk won’t be as good. The strongest effects are found in chocolate that is high in cacao (dark chocolate).

The researchers conducted the EEG study with 122 participants between the ages of 18 and 25 years old. The researchers examined the EEG levels and blood pressure effects of consuming a 60 percent cacao confection compared with five control conditions.

The findings show that the brains of participants who consumed the 60 percent cacao were more alert and attentive after consumption. Their blood pressure also increased for a short time.

The most interesting finding came from one of the control conditions, a 60 percent cacao chocolate which included L-theanine, an amino acid found in green tea that acts as a relaxant.

“L-theanine is a really fascinating product that lowers blood pressure and produces what we call alpha waves in the brain that are very calm and peaceful,” Stevens said.

“We thought that if chocolate acutely elevates blood pressure, and L-theanine lowers blood pressure, then maybe the L-theanine would counteract the short-term hypertensive effects of chocolate.”

For participants who consumed the high-cacao content chocolate with L-theanine, researchers noticed an immediate drop in blood pressure.

“It’s remarkable. The potential here is for a heart healthy chocolate confection that contains a high level of cacao with L-theanine that is good for your heart, lowers blood pressure, and helps you pay attention,” Stevens said.

The study, sponsored by the Hershey Company, is published in the journal NeuroRegulation.

Source: Northern Arizona University