New hope for battling obesity has sprung from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine where researchers may have discovered a way of transforming bad, white fat in the body into brown fat that can burn off more calories and weight. Although the breakthrough findings are currently only applicable to rats, the research may pave the way for future treatment of obesity among humans. The results of the research can be found in the journal Cell Metabolism.
In a study involving appetite regulation in rats led by Dr. Sheng Bi, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, the discovery was made that by switching off a protein in the rats’ brains, ordinary white fat, including stubborn belly fat, was turned into energy burning brown fat. Regarding the discovery, Bi pointed out, “If we could get the human body to turn ‘bad fat’ into ‘good fat’ that burns calories instead of storing them, we could add a serious new tool to tackle the obesity epidemic in the United States.”
Although infants are known to have an abundance of brown fat tissue that generates heat to help them stay warm, it has long been thought that brown fat diminishes as we grow older and seems to vanish completely by the time we reach adulthood. However, research recently revealed that adults do retain a certain amount of this healthy brown fat. By increasing the amount of brown fat a person stores, an effective weapon for fighting obesity may result. However, given that the discovery of fat transformation was made while altering the brains of rats, there will be the need for a great deal more research into the development of an alternative method for initiating the conversion of non-healthy white fat into energy burning brown.
The initial focus of the study was on a brain protein known as neuropeptide Y that regulates appetite. The research team set out to confirm their suspicions that by suppressing the protein, they would cause the rats to eat less. To test their theory, the rats were divided into two groups, with one group serving as the control group, while the other group was treated with a virus to inhibit neuropeptide Y. Findings showed that after five weeks, the virus-treated group had eaten less and weighed less than the control group. Further findings showed that when both groups were provided a high fat diet, the virus-treated group also gained less weight than did the control group.
Although these results were not surprising, when the researchers dissected the rats, the startling discover was made that white fat had been replaced with brown fat in some areas of the bodies of the virus-treated rats. In addition, the researchers found that the virus-treated rats generated more heat when exposed to cold for six hours than did the control group.
Although brown fat seemingly vanishes with age, it may be that stems cells of the brown fat remain. If this is the case, the researchers hypothesize that by suppressing neuropeptide Y in the brains of the rats, brown fat stem cells stored in the white fat tissue were activated and developed into brown fat. The researchers also noted that one possible method for generating stem cell development in human adults to stimulate weight loss could be an injection of brown fat stem cells under the skin.
The researchers will continue their studies to lean more about how brain signals can set off the transformation of white fat into brown fat. If identification of the molecules responsible for the change can be made, there is the hope of developing methods for targeting these molecules as treatment for obesity.
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