Scientists have found a switch-like brain mechanism for burning fat after a meal, according to a study out Tuesday that offered a potential novel target for the treatment of obesity.
Researchers at Monash University in Australia looked at a process known as browning, during which the body converts white fat, which stores energy, into brown fat, that is used to burn it.
Fat in the human body is stored in specialized cells called adipocytes, which can change from white to brown states and back again.
Their study, published in the U.S. journal Cell Metabolism, showed that a rise in blood glucose after a meal will cause the brain to send signals to promote the browning of fat so that the body will expend energy.
By contrast, after a fast, the brain instructs these browned adipocytes to once more convert into white adipocytes to store energy.
The complex process is controlled by a switch-like mechanism that turned on after fasting and turned off after feeding to help prevent both excess weight gain and excess weight loss.
"What happens in the context of obesity is that the switch stays on all the time -- it doesn't turn on off during feeding," lead researcher Professor Tony Tiganis from Monash University's Biomedicine Discovery Institute said in a statement.
"As a consequence, browning is turned off all the time and energy expenditure is decreased all the time, so when you eat, you don't see a commensurate increase in energy expenditure -- and that promotes weight gain," Tiganis said.
The researchers are now exploring the possibility of inhibiting the switch for therapeutic purposes to promote the burning of excess fat.
"What our studies have shown is that there is a fundamental mechanism at play that normally ensures that energy expenditure is matched with energy intake," Tiganis said.
"When this is defective, you put on more weight. Potentially we may be able to rewire this mechanism to promote energy expenditure and weight loss in obese individuals. But any potential therapy is a long way off," he said.