A study at McMaster University has found that brown adipose tissue (BAT) is less active in boys with obesity compared to boys with a normal body mass index (BMI).

Senior author Katherine Morrison said that BAT, also known as brown fat, helps the body burn regular fat and is activated by cold, but her research team noticed reduced BAT activity in the boys with obesity in response to a cold stimulus.

The team from McMaster’s Centre for Metabolism, Obesity and Diabetes Research (MODR) performed MRI scans to measure BAT activity in 26 boys between the ages of eight and 10. The participants included 13 boys with a normal BMI and the same number with obesity, in the first study of its kind in children.

The research team, which included Basma Ahmed as part of her doctorate studies at MODR, studied the BAT tissue in the neck before and after one hour of exposure to a cold suit set at a temperature of 18 degrees Celsius.

“The promise of this study is that if we can better understand BAT and how to mimic or stimulate its effects, it might offer us new therapies to treat obesity,” said Morrison, a professor in the university’s Department of Pediatrics and pediatrician at the McMaster Children’s Hospital.

“Beyond helping families improve their nutrition, physical activity, and sleep, we have few treatments to assist children and adolescents with obesity. There are new medications that reduce appetite used in some adolescents. Investigating BAT activity holds out the hope of developing a new class of drugs that increase the amount of energy you burn.”

However, Morrison said that it is still unknown whether a lack of BAT activity causes obesity, or if the condition simply impairs brown fat’s ability to burn energy.

She said that newborn babies have large amounts of BAT, but it steadily decreases through childhood, so that by adulthood it is mostly present only in the neck region. The reason for decreasing brown fat levels in children remains unknown.

Morrison said her team used MRI scans to measure BAT activity as it did not expose the boys to ionizing radiation, unlike CT or PET scans. This potential safety risk has impeded research in children until now.

“Anything I can do from a research or physician perspective to help the kids I see in my clinic is really what motivates me, because I see the health challenges that they have,” said Morrison.

The study was published in the journal Diabetes on March 16.

The research was supported by an internal grant from the Boris Family and external funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.


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