Most of us have been conditioned to believe that all fat in our bodies is bad for us. But a special type of fat found in the neck and shoulders, called brown fat, is actually good for us – and aids in burning off our other, so-called white fat cells.
Now scientists have observed the action of two naturally occurring hormones that may eventually lead to new treatments for shedding excess fat. The findings provide new insight into how the brain regulates body fat, and may help scientists discover ways to help patients lose weight and prevent obesity by converting white fat into brown fat.
The researchers, from Monash University in Australia, uncovered a molecular mechanism that depends on the combined action of two hormones, leptin and insulin. Leptin acts as an appetite suppressant while insulin in produced by the pancreas in reaction to rising sugar levels in the blood. The researchers found that the two hormones act together on a collection of neurons in the brain to stimulate the nervous system to start burning body fat.
“These hormones give the brain a comprehensive picture of the fatness of the body. Because leptin is produced by fat cells, it measures the level of existing fat reserves – the more fat, the more leptin. Whereas insulin provides a measure of future fat reserves because glucose levels rise when we eat,” lead researcher Professor Tony Tiganis said.
Most human fat is white fat, stored in special cells called adipocytes. Brown fat is also stored in adipocytes, but for some reason, these cells act more like muscles and actually burn white fat.
In the laboratory, the scientists were able to show that leptin and insulin interact with proopiomelanocortin (POMC) neurons in the brain, causing them to signal white fat to convert into brown fat. This leads to the burning off of excess fat. The researchers found that this process is regulated in neurons by enzymes which inhibit the actions of each of the hormones. When the levels of these enzymes were reduced, the browning and burning of fat increased.
Professor Tiganis said that in diet-induced obesity, something makes this natural mechanism go awry. He is confident that eventually scientists will be able to target the two enzymes in humans to help people lose weight, and says that turning white fat into brown fat is an exciting new approach to developing weight loss agents. “But,” he cautions, “it is not an easy task, and any potential therapy is a long way off.”
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