Imaging of Brown fat

Today’s sedentary life style has generated a cluster of obesity related health problems commonly referred to as the metabolic syndrome. A positive energy balance will eventually lead to insulin resistance and ultimately type 2-diabetes, which in turn may cause e.g. heart attacks, stroke, kidney problems and also many types of cancers. This is connected to the way we eat - we supply more energy than the body can use. If there was a way to increase the energy consumption without work it would revolutionize health care.

BAT - brown adipose tissue

The human body contains different types of adipose tissue, more commonly known as fat, that play different roles in the metabolism. While white adipose tissue (WAT) act as energy buffer, brown adipose tissue (BAT) converts stored energy (WAT) directly into heat that keeps us warm at least as infants and is also most likely of importance to us for longer than that.

In recent years, BAT has emerged as a highly interesting object of study in the search for future solutions to many of the major health care challenges related to the metabolic syndrome. Also, recent publications have shown relations between BAT and osteoporosis and sarcopenia also known as age related loss of muscle mass.

Inefficient tools for studying brown fat

The lack of efficient tools for studying BAT within the living body, however is a serious limitation hindering large clinical studies related to BAT. Until recently the only available method for in vivo imaging of BAT was positron emission tomography, which requires injection of a radioactive substance in the subjects, clearly limiting its use in large prospective studies.

Manual assessment of the BAT images is extremely time consuming, making larger studies impossible. Also, the reproducibility is limited in manual work. Computers on the other hand are very useful when it comes to reproducibility and speed. 

Collaboration between CMIV and Sahlgrenska University Hospital

The gene expression pattern of brown fat has been studied for several years at Sahlgrenska University Hospital. But it was not until the Sahlgrenska research group met the CMIV researchers Magnus Borga and Olof Dahlqvist Leinhard that the project reached new levels. Magnus and Olof have developed a method to distinguish fat from water in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) a method applicable on localizing brown fat deposits in the body. The two research groups complement each other in a unique manner, since both bring competences to the project that the other group lack. The studies of brown fat involve professionals from multiple disciplines, patient recruitment and advanced equipment. Without a center as CMIV the project would be impossible to realize.

The imaging of Brown Adipose Tissue 

Imaging of Brown fat
The overall aim of this project Imaging of Brown Adipose Tissue is therefore to develop and evaluate accurate automatic methods for high-resolution in vivo imaging, classification and quantification of BAT using quantitative magnetic resonance imaging and dual energy computed tomography.

So far the project has shown that it is possible to alter the constitution and amount of brown fat in rats by exposure to low temperatures. Now the researchers are proceeding with studies on humans and the results look promising. In parallel with the method development the project also studies the properties of brown fat and the possibilities to activate and even increase the amount of brown fat.

If there was a way to increase the energy consumption without work it would revolutionize health care

Magnus Borga, Professor in Medical Informatics

Project Leader
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