Harnessing Brown Adipose Tissue to Fight Obesity?

Brown Fat Cells in White Fat Tissue

Brown Fat Cells in White Fat Tissue

Although obesity is largely a “calories-in” rather than a “calories-out” problem, emerging evidence points to the possibilities of harnessing thermogenic brown adipose tissue to help balance this equation by helping burn more calories.

But this may be more difficult than it sounds.

Readers interested in this issue, may wish to refer to an overview of this topic by Canadian Obesity Network Bootcamper Kanta Chachi and colleagues from the University of Montreal, published in Obesity Reviews.

The paper summarizes talks given by various experts in the field at the 11th Stock Conference in Montreal, October 2012.

This includes an analysis of our current understanding of the developmental origin, cellular properties and molecular distinctions between classical brown and beige/brite adipocytes as well as the central circuitries and neuropeptides involved in the regulation of brown adipocyte thermogenesis.

The presence and metabolic activity of brown adipose tissue and its role in various aspects of human energy metabolism, including diet-induced thermogenesis is also discussed.

As for the potential therapeutic utility of brown adipocytes for treating obesity in humans, it is important to distinguish between t BAT mass and BAT activity – thus therapeutic approaches could focus on either increasing the amount of BAT present or increasing the activity of tissue that is already present.

As the authors point out,

“Even if there is no doubt that BAT can be activated by behavioural or pharmacological means, it is doubtful that BAT activation will be a viable strategy for weight loss. Based on the recent studies reporting enhanced energy expenditure in humans upon stimulation of BAT thermogenesis, it is conceivable that activation of BAT may rather be developed as a strategy for maintenance of weight loss achieved by other therapies. Indeed, BAT activation would counteract the ‘metabolic adaptation’ occurring in response to weight loss.”


“Considering that energy balance is a tightly regulated phenomenon, it is likely that BAT-mediated increase in energy expenditure may activate metabolic adaptations or counter-regulatory mechanisms in the body, which could oppose weight loss, in a similar fashion to what is seen with caloric restriction- or exercise-induced weight loss programmes.


“Whether BAT-mediated weight loss would promote similar metabolic adaptations and counter-regulatory mechanisms – including an increase in food intake remain to be determined. Although BAT thermogenesis is an attractive candidate, we are still in the preliminary stages of utilizing this tissue as a therapy for obesity. It would be important to practice ‘caution in extrapolating indirect histological and thermographic evidence to a major role for BAT in human energy metabolism’”

Edmonton, AB

ResearchBlogging.orgChechi K, Nedergaard J, & Richard D (2013). Brown adipose tissue as an anti-obesity tissue in humans. Obesity reviews : an official journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity PMID: 24165204