Burn and Fade

Unlocking the Secrets of Beige Fat for Energy Balance

The science of fat tissue has progressed in quite an impressive way over the last decade. And just yesterday, researchers added a new milestone to that progress. With a new paper in Nature Medicine, Heejin Jun and colleagues identified a neurological pathway that may be critical for activating beige fat cells to burn energy. And thus, we have a potential new target for innovative obesity treatments.

Basics: White, Brown, and Beige Fat

Basic scientists have come to understand that all fat cells are not alike. For the longest time, scientists assumed that the primary function of fat cells was to store energy within the cell as a single droplet of fat. This describes most of the fat cells in your body, which are called white adipose tissue.

But about a decade ago, scientists detected smaller deposits of a different kind of fat cells – now known as brown fat. Most mammals have this type of fat, but it’s most abundant in newborns and hibernating animals. In fact, all adult humans have some of it. However, as we age, our stores of brown fat become less and less. This is a shame, because brown fat serves the purpose of burning off excess stores of energy.

Even more recently, a third type of fat cells surfaced. These are beige fat cells, which the body can activate within stores of white adipose tissue. This discovery spurred quite a bit of excitement among obesity scientists because it suggested a way to improve the energy balance in people with obesity.

CHRNA2 Nicotinic Receptors

That brings us to the latest discovery – a potential pathway for activating beige fat tissue. In mice, Jun et al found a new type of neurological receptor that can serve this very purpose. They refer to it as a CHRNA2 receptor. It’s interesting to note that nicotine can activate this pathway, too. So maybe we also have new insight into the weight gain some people experience when they give up nicotine.

Of course, this is all very basic research. But it offers new clues and a new target for treating obesity. It’s where progress begins.

Click here for the new study and here for more perspective on beige and brown fat.

Burn and Fade, photograph © Holger Prothmann / flickr

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May 22, 2018