Infiltration of intramuscular adipose tissue impairs skeletal muscle contraction

J Physiol. 2020 Jul;598(13):2669-2683. doi: 10.1113/JP279595. Epub 2020 Jun 3.


Key points: Muscle infiltration with adipose tissue (IMAT) is common and associated with loss of skeletal muscle strength and physical function across a diverse set of pathologies. Whether the association between IMAT and muscle weakness is causative or simply correlative remains an open question that needs to be addressed to effectively guide muscle strengthening interventions in people with increased IMAT. In the present studies, we demonstrate that IMAT deposition causes decreased muscle strength using mouse models. These findings indicate IMAT is a novel therapeutic target for muscle dysfunction.

Abstract: Intramuscular adipose tissue (IMAT) is associated with deficits in strength and physical function across a wide array of conditions, from injury to ageing to metabolic disease. Due to the diverse aetiologies of the primary disorders involving IMAT and the strength of the associations, it has long been proposed that IMAT directly contributes to this muscle dysfunction. However, infiltration of IMAT and reduced strength could both be driven by muscle disuse, injury and systemic disease, making IMAT simply an 'innocent bystander.' Here, we utilize novel mouse models to evaluate the direct effect of IMAT on muscle contraction. First, we utilize intramuscular glycerol injection in wild-type mice to evaluate IMAT in the absence of systemic disease. In this model we find that, in isolation from the neuromuscular and circulatory systems, there remains a muscle-intrinsic association between increased IMAT volume and decreased contractile tension (r2 > 0.5, P < 0.01) that cannot be explained by reduction in contractile material. Second, we utilize a lipodystrophic mouse model which cannot generate adipocytes to 'rescue' the deficits. We demonstrate that without IMAT infiltration, glycerol treatment does not reduce contractile force (P > 0.8). Taken together, this indicates that IMAT is not an inert feature of muscle pathology but rather has a direct impact on muscle contraction. This finding suggests that novel strategies targeting IMAT may improve muscle strength and function in a number of populations.

Keywords: IMAT; fat infiltration; intermuscular adipose; muscle contraction.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adipocytes
  • Adipose Tissue*
  • Animals
  • Mice
  • Muscle Contraction*
  • Muscle Strength
  • Muscle, Skeletal