Experts may have found a new method for assessing adipose tissue function that could be used in the fight against obesity.
Thermal imaging of the head, neck, and shoulder area on exposure to a "cool challenge" can indicate the site and position of brown adipose tissue (BAT), the tissue that expends more heat energy than any other type in the body.
"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," explained lead author Michael Symonds (Nottingham University, UK) in a press statement.
Currently, the main methods of assessing BAT include positron-emission tomography (PET), computed tomography (CT) scanning, and/or tissue scanning, but these techniques are expensive and require either the administration of radiopharmaceuticals or tissue sampling, explains the team.
In addition, they can only be used on a small number of individuals and cannot provide indices of BAT function in real-time.
As reported in the Journal of Pediatrics, the team's thermal imaging study of 26 individuals showed that after exposure to a standard cool challenge (placement of either both feet or one hand in 19-20°C water), the hottest anatomic site of the supraclavicular region corresponded to the site previously established by PET/CT as comprising BAT.
Furthermore, the team could pinpoint the position of this temperature increase and found that this also corresponded to the position of BAT that had previously been found with PET/CT.
"We have demonstrated a consistent and highly localized increase in local temperature within the supraclavicular region that directly corresponds to the main site of BAT, previously established from PET/CT scans and biopsy studies," write the researchers.
Further analysis revealed that the temperature increase in the thermal area was significantly greater in children (those aged 3-8 years), at 0.62°C, than in adolescents (13-18 years), at 0.25°C, and in adults (35-58 years), at 0.20°C.
"Enhanced BAT thermogenesis in prepubertal children may be of particular importance in the context of the increasing prevalence of childhood obesity," say the authors, who hypothesize that children who become obese in early life will be characterized by having not only more white fat cells, but also reduced BAT.
"This completely noninvasive technique could play a crucial role in our fight against obesity," they add.
"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."
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