The brain could be a powerful fat burning tool, say scientists at Monash University in Melbourne who discovered that two naturally occurring hormones interact to convert energy-storing white fat into energy-burning, "good" brown fat.
"Turning white fat into brown fat is a very exciting new approach to developing weight loss agents," says lead author Professor Tony Tiganis from the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. "Eventually, we think we may be able to help people lose weight by targeting these two enzymes."
One of the enzymes, leptin, is an appetite suppressant that's generated in fat cells and the other is insulin, which comes from the pancreas when levels of glucose in the blood start to rise.
Professor Tiganis' research shows that the two hormones act together and persuade a group of neurons -- called proopiomelanocortin (POMC) neurons -- in the brain to convert the fat from white to brown, thereby igniting the fat-burning process.
"These hormones give the brain a comprehensive picture of the fatness of the body," says Professor Tiganis. "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."
If all this has you wondering why you can't just think your way skinny, chances are enzymes called phosphatases that inhibit the actions of leptin and insulin could be working against you.
Professor Tiganis' team found that when phosphatases were reduced, more brown fat was created and more fat was burned.
Don't give up your diet or relinquish your gym membership just yet: Professor Tiganis says any potential therapy based on his team's research is still a long way off.
Brown fat cells, also called adipocytes, occur most densely around the neck and shoulders, according to the researchers, whose study was published in the journal Cell.
That white adipocytes can be converted to brown has been suggested by several studies revealing a variety of methods to do so.
For example, a study at Maastricht University Medical Center in the Netherlands says it's possible to creat brown fat by keeping your surroundings cool, while another published in the journal Cell Press indicates that Mirabegron, a drug normally used to treat an overactive bladder, could also do the job.
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