Sympathetic innervation of cold-activated brown and white fat in lean young adults

Otto Muzik*, Tom J. Mangner, William R. Leonard, Ajay Kumar, James G. Granneman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


Recent work in rodents has demonstrated that basal activity of the local sympathetic nervous system is critical for maintaining brown adipocyte phenotypes in classic brown adipose tissue (BAT) and white adipose tissue (WAT). Accordingly, we sought to assess the relationship between sympathetic innervation and cold-induced activation of BAT and WAT in lean young adults. Methods: Twenty adult lean normal subjects (10 women and 10 men; mean age ± SD, 23.3 ± 3.8 y; body mass index, 23.7 ± 2.5 kg/m2) underwent 11C-meta-hydroxyephedrin (11C-HED) and 15O-water PET imaging at rest and after exposure to mild cold (16°C) temperature. In addition, 18F-FDG images were obtained during the cold stress condition to assess cold-activated BAT mass. Subjects were divided into 2 groups (high BAT and low BAT) based on the presence of 18F-FDG tracer uptake. Blood flow and 11C-HED retention index (RI, an indirect measure of sympathetic innervation) were calculated from dynamic PET scans at the location of BAT and WAT. Whole-body daily energy expenditure (DEE) during rest and cold stress was measured by indirect calorimetry. Tissue level oxygen consumption (MRO2) was determined and used to calculate the contribution of cold-activated BAT and WAT to daily DEE. Results: 18F-FDG uptake identified subjects with high and low levels of cold-activated BAT mass (high BAT, 96 ± 37 g; low-BAT, 16 ± 4 g). 11C-HED RI under thermoneutral conditions significantly predicted 18F-FDG uptake during cold stress (R2 = 0.68, P < 0.01). In contrast to the significant increase of 11C-HED RI during cold in BAT (2.42 ± 0.85 vs. 3.43 ± 0.93, P = 0.02), cold exposure decreased the 11C-HED RI in WAT (0.44 ± 0.22 vs. 0.41 ± 0.18) as a consequence of decreased perfusion (1.22 ± 0.20 vs. 1.12 ± 0.16 mL/100 g/min). The contribution of WAT to whole-body DEE was approximately 150 kcal/d at rest (149 ± 52 kcal/d), which decreased to approximately 100 kcal/d during cold (102 ± 47 kcal/d). Conclusion: The level of sympathetic innervation, as determined by 11C-HED RI, can predict levels of functional BAT. Overall, blood flow is the best independent predictor of 11C-HED RI and 18F-FDG uptake across thermoneutral and cold conditions. In contrast to BAT, cold stress reduces blood flow and 18F-FDG uptake in subcutaneous WAT, indicating that the physiologic response is to reduce heat loss rather than to generate heat.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)799-806
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Nuclear Medicine
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 1 2017


  • Brown fat
  • HED PET imaging
  • Subcutaneous fat
  • Sympathetic innervation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Radiology Nuclear Medicine and imaging


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