Fat a burning topic at scientist’s public lecture

Dr Belinda Henry
Dr Belinda Henry

When Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute’s Dr Belinda Henry was recently asked to give a public lecture at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery auditorium, New Zealand, it was a somewhat different proposition to the scientific addresses she is more used to delivering.

Dr Henry was addressing the topic of Women’s Brain Health. Her lecture described the sexual dimorphism in how the brain regulates body weight, as part Dr Henry’s research focusing on thermogenesis, a mode of energy expenditure that occurs in brown adipose tissue.

But how to explain brown adipose tissue to a lay audience?

“When I was approaching the talk I really wanted think about how to get it across in a simplified way to ensure that anybody in the audience would be able to understand it,” Dr Henry said.

“The talk had very little data in it and was entirely different to what I would normally give.”

Dr Henry’s talk was entitled “Lighting the Fire in Fat: Why women are protected against metabolic disease".

Brown adipose tissue, a specific type of fat tissue, actually expends rather than stores energy and appears to offer protection to women (who have more of it than men) against gaining excess weight and developing cardio-metabolic disease, she said.

“But as they age and undergo menopause a lot of these protective factors are lost,” Dr Henry said.

“Our work shows that young healthy women have enhanced brown adipose tissue activity when compared to men and that this is related to circulating ovarian steroids. The obvious question to start looking at is whether adipose tissue function alters as women age,” she said.

Dr Henry said it was essential for scientists to communicate their research to the public.

“With conditions such as obesity there is a huge amount of associated stigma. It is important that people understand why they gain weight, and why they find it so difficult to lose weight,” she said.

“I think it’s fundamental that we, as scientists, can explain the physiology around this so the public can get a better understanding of why dieting and weight loss is so difficult.”

Dr Henry, a highly regarded scientist in the field of neuroendocrinology, delivered her lecture before the University of Otago, Brain Health Research Centre’s annual conference, with between 75 and 100 people attending. When asked of her experience and the audience response, Dr Henry said, “They could very much relate to the topic.”

“I’d do it again – it was an enjoyable experience – and I’d recommend it to other scientists who have the opportunity to engage with the public in this way,” she said.

About the Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute

Committed to making the discoveries that will relieve the future burden of disease, the newly established Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute at Monash University brings together more than 120 internationally-renowned research teams. Our researchers are supported by world-class technology and infrastructure, and partner with industry, clinicians and researchers internationally to enhance lives through discovery.