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Thermal imaging may help fight obesity

Imaging tech that measures heat levels is being used to measure brown fat, which plays a prominent role in how quickly the body can burn calories as energy.

The thermal imaging camera is visible in the foreground.
University of Nottingham

All fat is not equal. Brown adipose tissue, more commonly called brown fat and abundant in both newborns and hibernating mammals, is the good fat, playing a prominent role in how quickly our bodies burn calories.

Brown fat also produces as much as 300 times more heat than any other tissue in the body, according to scientists at the University of Nottingham, so these scientists have developed a thermal imaging technique to measure not only a person's brown fat stores but also how much heat that fat produces.

"Potentially the more brown fat you have or the more active your brown fat is, you produce more heat and as a result you might be less likely to lay down excess energy or food as white fat," Michael Symonds, a professor of developmental physiology who led the research, said in a school news release.

"This completely noninvasive technique could play a crucial role in our fight against obesity. Potentially we could add a thermogenic index on food labels to show whether that product would increase or decrease heat production within brown fat -- in other words, whether it would speed up or slow down the amount of calories we burn."

Symonds adds that his team's research, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, could help scientists better understand the relationship between the energy from the food we eat and the energy our bodies actually use.

One area of interest is the neck region, which contains brown fat and which the team has shown produces heat rapidly in healthy children -- more so in younger children than in adolescents and adults. The team hopes to use its noninvasive technique to further investigate the mechanism behind heat production in brown fat, as well as new ways to prevent excess weight gain in both children and adults.