Nav: Home

How neurons reshape inside body fat to boost its calorie-burning capacity

July 22, 2020

There's no doubt that you can lose fat by eating less or moving more--yet after decades of research, the biology underlying this equation remains mysterious. What really ignites the breakdown of stored fat molecules are nerves embedded in the fat tissue, and a new study now reveals that these fat-burning neurons have previously unrecognized powers. If they receive the right signal, they have an astonishing capacity to grow.

That signal is the hormone leptin, which is released by the fat cells themselves. In experiments with mice described on July 22 in the journal Nature, the researchers found that the normally bushy network of neural fibers within fat tissue shrinks in the absence of leptin and grows back when the hormone is given as a drug. These changes were shown to influence the animals' ability to burn the energy stored in fat.

"While the architecture of the nervous system can change significantly as a young animal develops, we did not expect to find this profound level of neural plasticity in an adult," says . Jeffrey M. Friedman, a molecular geneticist at The Rockefeller University.

If confirmed in humans, the findings could advance research on obesity and related diseases, and potentially open the door to developing new treatments that target neurons in fat.

Homing in on neurons in fat

The team began by looking at what happens to mice who do not produce leptin on their own, and how they respond when treated with it.

Discovered in Friedman's lab in 1994, the hormone relays signals between fat deposits and the brain, allowing the nervous system to curb appetite and boost energy expenditure to regulate body weight. When mice are genetically engineered to stop producing leptin, they grow three times heavier than normal mice. They eat more, move less, and cannot survive in what should be tolerable cold because their body can't properly utilize fat to generate heat.

Give these mice a dose of leptin, however, and they quickly begin to eat less and move more. But when the researchers treated them longer, for two weeks, more profound changes occurred: the animals started to break down white fat, which stores unused calories, at normal levels, and regained the ability to use another form of fat tissue, brown fat, to generate heat.

It was this slower change that interested the research team, including the first authors of the Nature paper, Putianqi Wang, a graduate student in the lab, and Ken H. Loh, a postdoctoral fellow. They suspected that changes in neurons outside the brain--those that extend into fat--might explain why this part of the response to leptin took some time.

To the brain and back

Using an imaging technique developed by the lab of Rockefeller's Paul Cohen to visualize nerves inside fat, the researchers traced leptin's effects on the fat-embedded neurons up to the brain's hypothalamus region. From here, they found, leptin's growth-promoting message travels via the spinal cord back to the neurons in fat. "This work provides the first example of how leptin can regulate the presence of neurons in fat, both white and brown," adds Cohen.

Through this pathway, fat appears to be telling the brain how much innervation it needs to function properly. "Fat is indirectly controlling its own innervation and thus function," Friedman says. "It is an exquisite feedback loop."

Future research will analyze the role of this pathway in human obesity and possibly provide a novel approach for therapy. Most obese people produce high levels of leptin, and show a diminished response to hormone injections, suggesting that their brain is resistant to the hormone. Thus, bypassing leptin resistance could have a therapeutic benefit for these patients. "In the new study we see that similar to animals lacking leptin, obese, leptin-resistant animals also show reduced fat innervation," Friedman says. "So we speculate that directly activating the nerves that innervate fat and restoring a normal ability to use stored fat could provide a possible new avenue for treating obesity.
-end-


Rockefeller University

Related Science Articles:

75 science societies urge the education department to base Title IX sexual harassment regulations on evidence and science
The American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) today led 75 scientific societies in submitting comments on the US Department of Education's proposed changes to Title IX regulations.
Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, biopharma, and pharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2018 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.
Science in the palm of your hand: How citizen science transforms passive learners
Citizen science projects can engage even children who previously were not interested in science.
Applied science may yield more translational research publications than basic science
While translational research can happen at any stage of the research process, a recent investigation of behavioral and social science research awards granted by the NIH between 2008 and 2014 revealed that applied science yielded a higher volume of translational research publications than basic science, according to a study published May 9, 2018 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Xueying Han from the Science and Technology Policy Institute, USA, and colleagues.
Prominent academics, including Salk's Thomas Albright, call for more science in forensic science
Six scientists who recently served on the National Commission on Forensic Science are calling on the scientific community at large to advocate for increased research and financial support of forensic science as well as the introduction of empirical testing requirements to ensure the validity of outcomes.
World Science Forum 2017 Jordan issues Science for Peace Declaration
On behalf of the coordinating organizations responsible for delivering the World Science Forum Jordan, the concluding Science for Peace Declaration issued at the Dead Sea represents a global call for action to science and society to build a future that promises greater equality, security and opportunity for all, and in which science plays an increasingly prominent role as an enabler of fair and sustainable development.
PETA science group promotes animal-free science at society of toxicology conference
The PETA International Science Consortium Ltd. is presenting two posters on animal-free methods for testing inhalation toxicity at the 56th annual Society of Toxicology (SOT) meeting March 12 to 16, 2017, in Baltimore, Maryland.
Citizen Science in the Digital Age: Rhetoric, Science and Public Engagement
James Wynn's timely investigation highlights scientific studies grounded in publicly gathered data and probes the rhetoric these studies employ.
Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, pharma, and biopharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2016 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.
Three natural science professors win TJ Park Science Fellowship
Professor Jung-Min Kee (Department of Chemistry, UNIST), Professor Kyudong Choi (Department of Mathematical Sciences, UNIST), and Professor Kwanpyo Kim (Department of Physics, UNIST) are the recipients of the Cheong-Am (TJ Park) Science Fellowship of the year 2016.
More Science News and Science Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Debbie Millman: Designing Our Lives
From prehistoric cave art to today's social media feeds, to design is to be human. This hour, designer Debbie Millman guides us through a world made and remade–and helps us design our own paths.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#574 State of the Heart
This week we focus on heart disease, heart failure, what blood pressure is and why it's bad when it's high. Host Rachelle Saunders talks with physician, clinical researcher, and writer Haider Warraich about his book "State of the Heart: Exploring the History, Science, and Future of Cardiac Disease" and the ails of our hearts.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Insomnia Line
Coronasomnia is a not-so-surprising side-effect of the global pandemic. More and more of us are having trouble falling asleep. We wanted to find a way to get inside that nighttime world, to see why people are awake and what they are thinking about. So what'd Radiolab decide to do?  Open up the phone lines and talk to you. We created an insomnia hotline and on this week's experimental episode, we stayed up all night, taking hundreds of calls, spilling secrets, and at long last, watching the sunrise peek through.   This episode was produced by Lulu Miller with Rachael Cusick, Tracie Hunte, Tobin Low, Sarah Qari, Molly Webster, Pat Walters, Shima Oliaee, and Jonny Moens. Want more Radiolab in your life? Sign up for our newsletter! We share our latest favorites: articles, tv shows, funny Youtube videos, chocolate chip cookie recipes, and more. Support Radiolab by becoming a member today at Radiolab.org/donate.