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Thermal images trace ‘brown fat’ to fight obesity

U. NOTTINGHAM (UK) — A non-invasive technique that uses thermal imaging to detect “brown fat” could be a new tool to help manage obesity.

Brown adipose tissue, or good fat, produces 300 times more heat than any other tissue in the body.

A new study led by Michael Symonds, professor of developmental physiology at the University of Nottingham and published in the Journal of Pediatrics reports how the process can be used to assess how much brown fat a body has and how much heat it produces.



“Potentially the more brown fat you have or the more active your brown fat is, you produce more heat and as a result you might be less likely to lay down excess energy or food as white fat.

“This completely non-invasive technique could play a crucial role in our fight against obesity. Potentially we could add a thermogenic index to food labels to show whether that product would increase or decrease heat production within brown fat. In other words whether it would speed up or slow down the amount of calories we burn.”

The obesity threat

Obesity is one of the biggest challenges as children in Europe and America grow older, affecting 155 million children worldwide. In the UK the number of overweight children doubled in the 1990s.

“Babies have a larger amount of brown fat which they use up to keep warm soon after birth making our study’s finding that this healthy fat can also generate heat in childhood and adolescence very exciting,” says Helen Budge, clinical associate professor and reader in neonatology.

Symonds says the research could lead to a better understanding of how brown fat balances the energy from the food we eat with the energy our bodies actually use up.

Symonds and Budge have shown that the neck region in healthy children is known to contain brown adipose tissue that rapidly switches on to produce heat. This capacity is much greater in young children compared with adolescents and adults. The researchers are now using their findings to explore interventions designed to promote energy use as heat and, thus, prevent excess weight gain in both children and adults.

Non-invasive technology

“Using our imaging technique we can locate brown fat and assess its capacity to produce heat,” Symonds says. “It avoids harmful techniques which use radiation and enables detailed studies with larger groups of people. This may provide new insights into the role of brown fat in how we balance energy from the food we eat, with the energy our bodies use up.”

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