Thermal Imaging to Combat Obesity

There are two different types of adipose (fat) tissue in the human body. Brown fat – seen a lot in both newborns and hibernating mammals – is a good fat, and has a large role in how rapidly our bodies burn calories. It produces as much as 300 times more heat than any other tissue in the body. White fat, on the other hand, is the kind of fat that most people are trying to get rid of: it stores calories, but too much of this fat causes obesity and increases risk of type 2 diabetes, along with several other obesity-related diseases. It’s possible that the more brown fat one has, the less likely one’s body is to turn excess energy or food into white fat. In a new study, scientists at the University of Nottingham developed a thermal imaging technique that could be potentially be used to combat obesity. The non-invasive imaging technique measures not only a person’s brown fat stores, but also how much heat that fat produces. Thermal imaging does not use radiation–unlike other techniques–allowing for more detailed study.

The scientists say this technique could have implications in directly fighting obesity, with the potential of adding a thermogenic index to food labels. The index could indicate whether a specific food product would decrease or increase heat production within brown fat — ultimately meaning an index of how much it would speed up or slow down the amount of calories we burn. The researchers are now using their findings to explore interventions designed to promote energy use as heat and, thus, prevent excess weight gain in both children and adults.

Dr. Robert Michaelson, expert weight loss surgeon in Washington State, spoke with us about the study and how our understanding of the role of body fat has progressed. He said, “Over the past 2 decades, our understanding of appetite and weight regulation has increased dramatically.  We used to believe that fat was simply a means of storing excess energy to enable humans and other creatures to survive the long cold winters when food was scarce.  And while that is true on a very basic level, we are learning that the physiological mechanisms for doing so are quite complex. We now know that fat is metabolically active tissue, functioning similar to endocrine glands like our thyroid and pancreas.  Fat releases hormone like substances which interact with the brain and gut to influence energy stores.” Dr. Michaelson concluded that “this is a very exciting time to be in the field of bariatric medicine, and tools like thermal imaging will help further our understanding of how to treat obesity.”

Related Research:

Last year, in a study from the National Institutes of Health, researchers were able to turn white fat into brown fat by blocking a natural chemical in the body. The change led to weight loss, improved blood sugar levels and insulin tolerance in the mice. You can read more about the research here.

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