Obesity and related diseases are a major cause of human morbidity and mortality and constitute a substantial economic burden for society. Effective treatment regimens are scarce, and new therapeutic targets are needed. Brown adipose tissue, an energy-expending tissue that produces heat, represents a potential therapeutic target. Its presence is associated with low body mass index, low total adipose tissue content and a lower risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus. Knowledge about the development and function of thermogenic adipocytes in brown adipose tissue has increased substantially in the last decade. Important transcriptional regulators have been identified, and hormones able to modulate the thermogenic capacity of the tissue have been recognized. Intriguingly, it is now clear that humans, like rodents, possess two types of thermogenic adipocytes: the classical brown adipocytes found in the interscapular brown adipose organ and the so-called beige adipocytes primarily found in subcutaneous white adipose tissue after adrenergic stimulation. The presence of two distinct types of energy-expending adipocytes in humans is conceptually important because these cells might be stimulated and recruited by different signals, raising the possibility that they might be separate potential targets for therapeutic intervention. In this review, we will discuss important features of the energy-expending brown adipose tissue and highlight those that may serve as potential targets for pharmacological intervention aimed at expanding the tissue and/or enhancing its function to counteract obesity.
Keywords: beige adipocytes; brown adipocytes; brown adipose tissue; energy expenditure; obesity.
© 2014 The Association for the Publication of the Journal of Internal Medicine.