Milestone for brown fat research with new MRI scan

The first MRI scan to show ‘brown fat’ in a living adult could prove to be an essential step towards a new wave of therapies to aid the fight against diabetes and obesity.

Researchers from Warwick Medical School and University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust used a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) based method to identify and confirm the presence of brown adipose tissue in a living adult.

Brown fat has become a hot topic for scientists due its ability to use energy and burn calories, helping to keep weight in check. Understanding the brown fat tissue and how it can be used to such ends is of growing interest in the search to help people suffering from obesity or at a high risk of developing diabetes.

Dr Thomas Barber, from the Department of Metabolic and Vascular Health at Warwick Medical School, explained, “This is an exciting area of study that requires further research and discovery. The potential is there for us to develop safe and effective ways of activating this brown fat to promote weight loss and increase energy expenditure – but we need more data to be able to get to that point.”

“This particular proof of concept is key, as it allows us to pursue MRI techniques in future assessments and gather this required information.”

The study, published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, outlines the benefits of using MRI scans over the existing method of positron emission tomography (PET). Whilst PET does show brown fat activity, it is subject to a number of limitations including the challenge of signal variability from a changing environmental temperature.

Unlike the PET data which only displays activity, the MRI can show brown fat content whether active or not – providing a detailed insight into where it can be found in the adult body. This information could prove vital in the creation of future therapies that seek to activate deposits of brown fat.

Dr Barber added, “The MRI allows us to distinguish between the brown fat, and the more well-known white fat that people associate with weight gain, due to the different water to fat ratio of the two tissue types. We can use the scans to highlight what we term ‘regions of interest’ that can help us to build a picture of where the brown fat is located.”

With the proof of concept now completed, the next step is to further validate this technique across a larger group of adults.

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2 thoughts on “Milestone for brown fat research with new MRI scan”

  1. The fact that the term fat is used to refer to a body tissue that is actually beneficial to health is quite an interesting concept and a difficult idea to fathom for most. For years the public has been indoctrinated with the fact that all fat is bad, but this just shows how wrongly we can structure our pattern of thinking if the human body is not looked at holistically. Although research in brown fat is still in its early stages, the discovery of brown fat in adults might be revolutionary in the world of weight loss. The discovery of brown fat in adults was very recent, up to now brown fat was thought of as body tissue only to be found in newborns. Being able to detect brown fat with MRI scans and determine its specific locations in the body can almost be considered a medical breakthrough. If brown fat areas in the body can be pinpointed, researchers can better understand how brown fat is actually involved in metabolism and find ways to stimulate the growth of this apparent beneficial body tissue. It has long been known that brown fat helps the body keep warm, hence it’s very important role in newborns, but the fact that it can actually assist in weight loss has only been recently suggested. Researchers suggested that brown fat can possibly be involved in the breakdown of white adipose tissue, breaking it down to produce heat. Its role in weight loss can be supported by the fact that more brown fat can be found in slim adults, and almost nothing in obese individuals. Its high mitochondrial and iron content, giving it its characteristic brown color, confirms the fact that this tissue is directly involved in metabolism, but despite all the findings and conclusions made by scientists it is still too early to say that brown fat helps us slim down for sure. The role of brown fat in our bodies is not yet fully understood, but will be in the new future thanks to new techniques for studying and detecting this mysterious tissue. In terms of stimulating brown fat growth like the article suggests, according to research up to now, it might be beneficial. Exercise was found to increase brown fat in an individual, as well as frequent exposure to colder climates. Findings have been based on a study conducted on mice, exploring possibilities that trigger brown fat growth. One of the simulations had a positive outcome, proving that exposure to low temperatures does in fact increase brown fat tissue over a long period of time. The discovery was of great significance, however taking this research a step further and actually applying it on humans is still far out of reach. The study also has some very negative outcomes. In an overstimulation of brown fat the mice developed tumors known as hibernoma. Caution should always be taken when dealing with new research. Brown fat stimulation can also pose a serious risk to our health.

  2. Brown fat is involved with the breaking down of excess fats in the adult body and it has the similar effect in infants but with more importance. This fat is characterized by its large amount of mitochondria and fat vacuoles. Once the baby’s temperature decreases, nerve impulses are sent to trigger the release of noradrenalin which oxidizes the fatty molecules and as a result releases heat to increase the babies temperature.

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