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Ben T McNeill, Karla J Suchacki, and Roland H. Stimson

Excessive accumulation of white adipose tissue leads to obesity and its associated metabolic health consequences such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Several approaches to treat or prevent obesity including public health interventions, surgical weight loss, and pharmacological approaches to reduce caloric intake have failed to substantially modify the increasing prevalence of obesity. The (re-)discovery of active brown adipose tissue (BAT) in adult humans approximately 15 years ago led to a resurgence in research into whether BAT activation could be a novel therapy for the treatment of obesity. Upon cold stimulus, BAT is activated and generates heat to maintain body temperature, thus increasing energy expenditure. Activation of BAT may provide a unique opportunity to increase energy expenditure without the need for exercise. However, much of the underlying mechanisms surrounding BAT activation are still being elucidated and the effectiveness of BAT as a therapeutic target has not been realised. Research is ongoing to determine how best to expand BAT mass and activate existing BAT; approaches include cold exposure, pharmacological stimulation using sympathomimetics, browning agents that induce formation of thermogenic beige adipocytes in white adipose depots, and the identification of factors secreted by BAT with therapeutic potential. In this review, we discuss the caloric capacity and other metabolic benefits from BAT activation in humans and the role of metabolic tissues such as skeletal muscle in increasing energy expenditure. We discuss the potential of current approaches and the challenges of BAT activation as a novel strategy to treat obesity and metabolic disorders.