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Brown adipose tissue (BAT) or brown fat is one of the two types of adipose tissue (the other being white adipose tissue) that is present in many newborn or hibernating mammals. Its primary purpose is to generate body heat. In contrast to white adipocytes (fat cells), which contain a single, large fat vacuole, brown adipocytes contain several smaller vacuoles and a much higher number of mitochondria. Brown fat also contains more capillaries since it has a greater need for oxygen than most tissues.
The mitochondria in a eukaryotic cell utilize fuels to produce energy (in the form of ATP). This process involves storing energy as a proton gradient, also known as the proton motive force (PMF), across the mitochondrial inner membrane. This energy is used to synthesise ATP when the protons flow across the membrane (down their concentration gradient) through the ATP synthase enzyme. This model is known as the chemiosmotic hypothesis.
In endothermic animals, body heat is maintained by signalling the mitochondria to allow protons to run back along the gradient without producing ATP. This can occur since an alternative return route for the protons exists through an uncoupling protein in the inner membrane. This protein, known as thermogenin, or uncoupling protein 1, facilitates the return of the protons after they have been actively pumped out of the mitochondria by the electron transport chain. This alternative route for protons uncouples oxidative phosphorylation and the energy in the PMF is released as heat.
To some degree all cells of endotherms give off heat, especially when body temperature is below a regulatory threshold, however, brown adipose tissue is highly specialized for this non-shivering thermogenesis. Firstly, each cell has a higher number of mitochondria compared to more typical cells. Secondly, these mitochondria have a higher than normal concentration of thermogenin in the inner membrane.
Function in babies
In neonates (new born babies), brown fat, which then makes up about 5% of the body mass and is located on the back, along the upper half of the spine and towards the shoulders, is of great importance to avoid lethal cold (hypothermia is a major death risk for premature neonates). Numerous factors make infants more susceptible to cold than adults:
- The higher ratio of body surface (proportional to heat loss) to body volume (proportional to heat production)
- The higher proportional surface area of the head
- The low amount of musculature and the inability or reluctance to shiver
- A lack of thermal insulation, e.g. subcutaneous fat and fine body hair (especially in prematurely born children)
- The inability to move away from cold areas, air currents or heat-draining materials
- The inability to use additional ways of keeping warm (e.g. turning up a heater, drying their skin, changing clothes or performing physical exercise)
- The nervous system is not fully developed and does not respond quickly and/or properly to cold (e.g. by contracting blood vessels in the skin)
However, the burning of the brown fat will, in fact, provide a baby with an alternative form of heat induction. This form is an adaquate substitute to any and all other unconcious means of an adult.
Provide more info if you have seen the "I Shouldn't Be Alive Episode" on The Science Channel. A baby was carried in a leather case over 20 miles in sub-zero temperatures and survived. (02/29/07... probably a rerun)
When growing up, most of the mitochondria (which are responsible for the brown color) in brown fat disappear, and the tissue becomes similar in function and appearance to white fat, as a mere fat deposit, though some adults do retain their brown fat.
Psychological effects of BAT
References & Bibliography
- Histology at Boston University 04901lob - "Connective Tissue: multilocular (brown) adipocytes"
- de:Braunes Fettgewebe
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