I like chocolate. Who doesn’t? (Oh, there are a few strange folks who don’t, it’s true, but most people seem to like the stuff.)
It’s laden with fat and sugar, mind, and conventional dietary advice is that it’s not really very good for you (or me, for that matter).
However, every now and then (usually around Christmas time, as noted here), you find stories that supply vague, pseudo-scientific reasons why chocolate may be good for you.
a) People with Parkinson’s apparently eat more chocolate (neurologists at Dresden University of Technology published the results of a self-questionnaire on this topic – see the abstract here); and
b) There may be some subconscious urge (with a biological basis) causing this.
A Dutch psychiatrist, Walter van den Broek, blogging under the name Dr. Shock, discusses this result and hypothesizes on the possible reasons why chocolate is especially important to people with Parkinson’s. You can read his full post here. Van den Broek, who seems to have a special interest in chocolate, states:
Beta-phenyl-ethylamine is the only possible psychoactive substance in chocolate that passes the blood brain barrier. It is a direct dopamine releasing ingredient. Moreover, cocoa contains caffeine and it’s structural derivatives, these components can have antiparkinsonian effects.
As you may be aware, it is lack of dopamine that causes Parkinsonian symptoms (Parkinson’s Disease is a condition in which the brain does not make sufficient dopamine; dopamine itself will not cross the blood-brain barrier, and so several drug treatments for Parkinson’s utilise various precursors of dopamine – such as beta-phenyl-ethylamine).
More about the potential effects of caffeine later.
But in the meantime, consider this comment, made by Parkinson’s patient Vivien Ambler on the Web site Medical News Today:
I have discovered by chance that consuming chocolate improves my motor symptoms. my body just craved chocolate & after I ate a few small pieces I noticed my symptoms improved for the rest of the day.
Vivien was responding to an article posted on the site referring to a study made at the University of Nottingham in which the ‘brain boosting power’ of chocolate was investigated. No reference was made to Parkinson’s or to dopamine in this article; instead, it referred to flavanols (substances that occur naturally in chocolate, but which are sometimes removed in commercial confectionery due to their bitter taste) and their observed ability to “boost blood flow to key areas of the brain for two to three hours.” I suspect that the effect Vivien noticed was more likely to be due to the beta-phenyl-ethylamine noted by van den Broek.
The team at Dresden have themselves planned a clinical trial on the “Effects of Chocolate on Motor Symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease”. This was also reported by the Daily Mail in a health round-up article. It is possible that this trial is now complete, but I have not yet seen any reference to the results.
One final point: if it is possible to extract an anti-Parkinsonian substance from chocolate and package it up in a pill, would it be a good idea? Or would we rather eat the chocolate?
More good news about chocolate in the following post – this time for everybody, not just Parkinsonians!