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ITHACA, N.Y. — Imagine a world where you could activate your body’s own fat-burning capabilities to maintain a healthy weight and mitigate the risks associated with age-related metabolic changes. It sounds like a dream, but scientists are working on making it a reality. In a new study, researchers from Cornell University’s Division of Nutritional Sciences believe they can reverse the effects of a slowing metabolism by understanding and stimulating the production of a specific type of fat cells known as “beige fat.”

In mammals, including humans, there are two primary types of fat: white adipose tissue (WAT), which stores excess calories as energy, and brown adipose tissue (BAT), which burns calories to generate heat and maintain body temperature. The study highlights the therapeutic potential of a third type of fat called beige fat, which is a subtype of WAT. Beige fat shares cellular precursors with white fat and possesses thermogenic properties similar to brown fat. This means that beige fat can help regulate blood sugar levels and reduce the presence of fatty acids that contribute to conditions like arterial hardening and heart disease.

The process of beige fat formation occurs when stem cells, known as adipose progenitor cells, within white fat are stimulated by prolonged exposure to cold temperatures. However, as individuals age, their response to this stimulus weakens, leading to an imbalance favoring the production of white fat.

“There are seasonal changes in beige fat in young humans, but an older person would have to stand outside in the snow in their underwear to get those same effects,” Dan Berry, assistant professor in the Division of Nutritional Sciences, explains in a university release.

Overweight woman hand pinching excessive belly fat
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Previous research by Berry demonstrated that the aging process hampers the formation of beige fat cells in response to cold temperatures.

Abigail Benvie, lead author of the study and a doctoral student researcher in Berry’s lab, explains the ultimate goal of their research is to find a way to stimulate metabolic pathways without having to subject people to cold exposure for prolonged periods of time. Researchers managed to suppress this pathway in aging mice, and successfully stimulated the production of beige fat cells in areas where only white fat would typically form.

The research not only offers potential solutions for age-related weight gain and associated health conditions but also provides insight into the molecular mechanisms behind beige fat formation. The study’s co-authors, including graduate students Derek Lee, Benjamin M. Steiner, and Siwen Xue, along with Yuwei Jiang from the University of Illinois at Chicago, plan to further investigate the identified pathway and explore other molecular regulators of beige fat formation. With a $2.2 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health, Berry’s lab aims to deepen our understanding of how these regulators change in levels and activity during the aging process.

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.

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