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The color of fat tissue – white, brown, or beige – dictates the role the tissue plays in the body. Whereas white fat is involved in lipid storage and the release of free fatty acids for energy, brown fat is involved primarily in thermogenesis – the production of heat. Beige fat, which is typically co-located with white fat, can exhibit either storage or thermogenic properties, depending on environmental conditions. It also exerts anti-inflammatory properties via induction of interleukin 4, an anti-inflammatory molecule. White fat can convert to beige fat, a process known as “beiging.” Findings described in a recent report suggest that beige fat mediates the neuroprotective effects of subcutaneous fat.

Subcutaneous fat, which is composed of both white and beige fat, is stored just beneath the skin. Commonly associated with a “pear” shape, it may protect against dementia. Visceral fat, on the other hand, is composed of white fat. It is stored in the abdominal cavity close to internal organs such as the liver, pancreas, and intestines. An excess of visceral fat, often referred to as central obesity or abdominal obesity, is commonly associated with an “apple” shape and an increased risk for chronic disease, including dementia.

The authors of the report conducted a two-part study using a type of mouse genetically modified to lack the gene that promotes beiging. Without beiging, subcutaneous fat behaves more like visceral fat.

In the first part of the study, they fed either a low-fat or high-fat diet to the genetically modified mice and normal mice for one month. They tested the animals' cognitive function and measured markers of inflammation and immune activation. Both groups of mice became obese on the high-fat diet, but cognitive tests revealed that the mice without beige fat showed signs of early cognitive impairment while the normal mice did not. The mice without beige fat also exhibited rapid, robust inflammatory responses to the high-fat diet, including activation of microglial cells (a type of immune cell found in the brain). Microglia activation promotes inflammation, harms brain health, and contributes to dementia.

In the second part of the study, the authors transplanted subcutaneous fat from young, lean healthy mice into the abdominal areas of the obese, cognitively impaired mice. The recipient mice experienced improvements in memory and synaptic plasticity – the ability to form new connections between neurons.

These findings suggest that beige fat drives the neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory effects of subcutaneous fat in mice. A growing body of evidence suggests that cold exposure promotes beiging of white fat. Learn more about the health effects of cold exposure in our overview article.

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