Evidence for a sensitive period of plasticity in brown adipose tissue during early childhood among indigenous Siberians

Stephanie B. Levy*, Tatiana M. Klimova, Raisa N. Zakharova, Afanasiy I. Fedorov, Valentina I. Fedorova, Marina E. Baltakhinova, William R. Leonard

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Objectives: Evolutionary theorists have debated the adaptive significance of developmental plasticity in organisms with long lifespans such as humans. This debate in part stems from uncertainty regarding the timing of sensitive periods. Does sensitivity to environmental signals fluctuate across development or does it steadily decline? We investigated developmental plasticity in brown adipose tissue (BAT) among indigenous Siberians in order to explore the timing of phenotypic sensitivity to cold stress. Methods: BAT thermogenesis was quantified using infrared thermal imaging in 78 adults (25 men; 33 women). Cold exposure during gestation, infancy, early childhood, middle childhood, and adolescence was quantified using: (1) the average ambient temperature across each period; (2) the number of times daily temperature dropped below −40°F during each period. We also assessed past cold exposure with a retrospective survey of participation in outdoor activities. Results: Adult BAT thermogenesis was significantly associated with the average temperature (p = 0.021), the number of times it was below −40°F (p = 0.026), and participation in winter outdoor activities (p = 0.037) during early childhood. Conclusions: Our results suggest that early childhood represents an important stage for developmental plasticity, and that culture may play a critical role in shaping the timing of environmental signals. The findings highlight a new pathway through which the local consequences of global climate change may influence human biology, and they suggest that ambient temperature may represent an understudied component of the developmental origins of health and disease.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)834-846
Number of pages13
JournalAmerican Journal of Physical Anthropology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 2021


  • adaptation
  • circumpolar
  • climate change
  • development
  • energetics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anatomy
  • Anthropology


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