Brown fat: not just for babies and bears

By Heather Buschman, Ph.D.
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Sanford-Burnham’s Dr. Sheila Collins recently returned from Stockholm, where she attended a meeting on brown fat (also called brown adipose tissue) and obesity, held in conjunction with the XI International Congress on Obesity. Brown fat, which helps generate heat, was historically thought to be limited to small mammals such as rodents, newborns of larger mammals (including humans), and hibernators – in order for them to stay warm. Scientists used to think that brown fat disappeared after infancy, but recent advances in imaging technology led to a rediscovery of brown fat in adult humans. This meeting brought together scientists studying the basic biology of brown fat tissue and its possible role in adults in order to figure out how all this information can be applied to fight obesity.

Brown fat is brown because it’s full of blood vessels and mitochondria, the part of a cell that generates energy (recall in school we learned that mitochondria are the “powerhouse” of the cell). As in our typical “white fat,” brown fat cells store energy. But brown fat is different because it also has a special molecule called the uncoupling protein, which is like a ‘leak’ in the energy-generating system. With this leak, brown fat cells have to burn more fuel to produce the same amount of energy that other types of fat are able to generate. The net effect is to produce heat.

“It’s like trying to keep the tub filled to a certain level while the drain is open,” Dr. Collins explained. “You have to pour in a lot more water.”

Keeping the brown fat “tub” full means burning more calories. Dr. Collins and other scientists hope that the more we know about brown fat, the more we might learn about how to activate it to help us burn extra calories and lose weight – or prevent weight gain. At the meeting in Stockholm, Dr. Collins talked about her research on how adrenaline activates brown fat and how that mechanism is regulated.

“Most of the people who work in this field were at the meeting, so it was a great opportunity for everyone to be together, share ideas and develop new collaborations,” she said.

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Heather Buschman, Ph.D.

Heather was a Sanford-Burnham Communications staff member.

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5 Comments

  1. Tom Hennessy on

    Brown fat is created by plant foods. By not eating plant foods the amount of brown fat goes down DISproportionately TO the white fat. Simple. MUST eat the plant fats to increase the brown fat PROportionately TO the white fat. I guess since you didn’t MENTION that in your discussion of the ‘meeting’ means the meeting didn’t find it important ENOUGH to IMPRESS this FACT upon .. you. Imho .. ;)

    “Ramp up the production of brown fat”
    “Vegetable oils rich in monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fatty
    acids”
    “Scientists create energy-burning brown fat in mice”
    http://www.physorg.com/news168094278.html

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  3. Dr. Sheila Collins on

    In response to Mr. Hennessy’s commentary:
    Could you please provide some kind of factual evidence for the statement that “brown fat is created by plant foods” – – certainly if there is a magic ingredient in ‘plant foods’ we would all be eating it. If the point that the writer is attempting to make is that a greater consumption of fruits and vegetables is healthful, that we can all agree on. In addition we all recognize that the cellulose of vegetables is not so energetically accessible to be digested to be stored as calories and so it is energetically ‘expensive’ and as a result the metabolic energy to be stored is less. This does not mean that ‘brown fat is created by plant foods’. We wish it were so easy as to say ‘this’ or ‘that’ is all you need to eat or do to change in your life.
    We are trying hard to understand the molecular basis for increasing energy expenditure in brown adipocytes – – as well as white adipocytes and we all certainly recognize that calorically dense foods – and that are more digestible and their calories easily stored – – such as meats, fats, butters – – must be consumed in moderation relative to ones energy expenditure. Because muscles evolved to ‘work’ to find food and avoid predators – – well so we recognize that today in the modern world there will always be a place for healthful eating and exercise. Thank you for your interest in the work we are doing and the goals we are trying to achieve. Please continue to visit us and provide your input.

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