Hershey's chocolate bars are shown in this photo illustration in Encinitas, California, Jan. 29, 2015. Reuters

Regular dietary intake of cocoa and chocolate could improve general cognition, attention, processing speed, and working memory, a new study found. In a recent review published in Frontiers in Nutrition, Italian researchers studied the effect of cocoa flavanols on the brain and the impact its additional consumption has on the body.

The research found participants showed enhancements in working memory performance and improved visual information processing after eating cocoa flavanols — a class of natural compounds that has neuroprotective effects. The study also found that women who consumed cocoa after a night of total sleep deprivation actually counteracted the cognitive impairment a night without sleep results in.

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The study, which was conducted on young and healthy adults, investigated the effects of relatively long-term consumption of cocoa flavanols — ranging from 5 days up to 3 months — in elderly individuals.

“It turns out that for them cognitive performance was improved by a daily intake of cocoa flavanols,” the researchers said. “Factors such as attention, processing speed, working memory, and verbal fluency were greatly affected.”

The researchers added: “These effects were, however, most pronounced in older adults with a starting memory decline or other mild cognitive impairments. And this was exactly the most unexpected and promising result.”

"This result suggests the potential of cocoa flavanols to protect cognition in vulnerable populations over time by improving cognitive performance," study co-authors Valentina Socci and Michele Ferrara said. "If you look at the underlying mechanism, the cocoa flavanols have beneficial effects for cardiovascular health and can increase cerebral blood volume in the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus (in the brain)."

Following the study, researchers suggested high quality forms of cocoa could be considered as a dietary supplement, especially dark chocolate, which is known to be a rich source of flavanols.

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"Regular intake of cocoa and chocolate could indeed provide beneficial effects on cognitive functioning over time," the pair added. "There are, however, potential side effects of eating cocoa and chocolate. Those are generally linked to the caloric value of chocolate, some inherent chemical compounds of the cocoa plant such as caffeine and theobromine, and a variety of additives we add to chocolate such as sugar or milk."

Earlier reports revealed cocoa consumption is associated with decreased blood pressure, improved bloodvessel health, and improvement in cholesterol levels, among other benefits. Flavonol-rich cocoa consumption was also linked to a reduction in the risk for diabetes.