Unexpected evidence for active brown adipose tissue in adult humans.
The contention that brown adipose tissue is absent in adult man has meant that processes attributed to active brown adipose tissue in experimental animals (mainly rodents), i.e., classical nonshivering thermogenesis, adaptive adrenergic thermogenesis, diet-induced thermogenesis, and antiobesity, should be either absent or attributed to alternative (unknown) mechanisms in man. However, serendipidously, as a consequence of the use of fluorodeoxyglucose positron emission tomography (FDG PET) to trace tumor metastasis, observations that may change that notion have recently been made. These tomography scans have visualized symmetrical areas of increased tracer uptake in the upper parts of the human body; these areas of uptake correspond to brown adipose tissue. We examine here the published observations from a viewpoint of human physiology. The human depots are somewhat differently located from those in rodents, the main depots being found in the supraclavicular and the neck regions with some additional paravertebral, mediastinal, para-aortic, and suprarenal localizations (but no interscapular). Brown adipose tissue activity in man is acutely cold induced and is stimulated via the sympathetic nervous system. The prevalence of active brown adipose tissue in normal adult man can be only indirectly estimated, but it would seem that the prevalence of active brown adipose tissue in the population may be at least in the range of some tens of percent. We conclude that a substantial fraction of adult humans possess active brown adipose tissue that thus has the potential to be of metabolic significance for normal human physiology as well as to become pharmaceutically activated in efforts to combat obesity.