Unlike white fat, which stores calories, brown fat is the tissue that burns energy, but an American research team wanted to investigate any potential health benefits it might have.
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Large-scale studies looking at brown fat have been almost impossible to carry out previously, because the tissues only shows up on a particular type of scan.
PET scans are expensive and use radiation so involving them in a study on healthy individuals is not ethical.
However, this type of scan is used routinely for cancer examinations and the study’s first author Dr Tobias Becher knew that when brown fat is detected, radiologists always note it down so they are not mistaken for any tumours.
Dr Becher, instructor in Clinical Investigation of the Rockefeller University, said: “We realised this could be a valuable resource to get us started with looking at brown fat at a population scale.”
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The team reviewed more than 130,000 scans and brown fat present in nearly 10% of the individuals.
Further investigation found that chronic diseases were less prevalent among those people where brown fat had been detected. The researchers said among them, only 4.6% had type 2 diabetes, compared with 9.5% who did not have any brown fat.
High cholesterol levels were found in 18.9% of those with the brown fat tissue, compared with 22.2% of those without.
Assistant Professor Paul Cohen, senior attending physician at the Rockefeller University Hospital and study author, said: “We are considering the possibility that brown fat tissue does more than consume glucose and burn calories, and perhaps actually participates in hormonal signalling to other organs.
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“The natural question that everybody has is, ‘What can I do to get more brown fat?’ “We don’t have a good answer to that yet, but it will be an exciting space for scientists to explore in the upcoming years.”
The team now plans to further investigate the role of brown fat and any other health benefits it might have.