Thiazolidinediones (TZDs) are a novel class of insulin-sensitizing agents used in the treatment of NIDDM and are potent agonists for the nuclear hormone receptor peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor gamma (PPARgamma). The thiazolidinedione BRL 49653 has been shown to promote the differentiation of the HIB-1B brown preadipocyte cell line and to increase rat interscapular brown adipose tissue (BAT) mass. Given the importance of brown fat in the control of energy metabolism in rodents, this may represent an important therapeutic effect of this class of compound. To date, however, no studies examining the effects of TZDs on human brown fat have been reported. In the present study, we have measured uncoupling protein 1 (UCP-1) mRNA, a specific marker for BAT, in isolated adipocytes and subcultured preadipocytes prepared from different adult human adipose tissue depots. Consistent with previous studies of adult human whole adipose tissue, UCP-1 mRNA was detectable in isolated human adipocytes prepared from all depots studied with a rank order of perirenal, omental, and subcutaneous. BRL 49653 treatment of subcultured human pre-adipocytes prepared from all depots resulted in increased levels of UCP-1 mRNA, compared with those of the vehicle-treated cells. When exposed to BRL 49653 for 5 days, preadipocytes from the human perirenal depot accumulated lipid, and a proportion of cells showed clear mitochondrial staining for UCP-1 protein by confocal microscopy. Thus, cells of the brown fat lineage were detectable in all human adipose depots studied, and cultured human pre-adipocytes, particularly from the perirenal depot, showed a marked increase in UCP-1 expression in response to thiazolidinediones. Given the role of brown adipocytes in the enhancement of energy expenditure, promotion of brown fat adipogenesis by thiazolidinediones could contribute to the beneficial effects of these drugs on insulin resistance in humans.