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Approved Research

Is exposure to cold temperatures at conception and over the life cycle associated with risk factors for obesity and diabetes in adulthood?

Principal Investigator: Professor Reyn van Ewijk
Approved Research ID: 74910
Approval date: November 22nd 2021

Lay summary

This project investigates if exposure to cold temperatures at conception and throughout life is associated with higher risks for obesity and diabetes in adulthood. The central aim of this project is to obtain a more profound understanding of how prenatal and postnatal circumstances interact and shape human metabolic health.

Prenatal environmental factors can significantly affect fetal development and health of the offspring later in life. This includes the moment around conception. Previous research results have shown that paternal cold exposure around conception is associated with a higher likelihood to have active brown fat later in life. In contrast to white fat, which primarily serves as a fat-storing organ, brown fat is known for its capacity to generate heat to protect the body against cold temperatures by burning calories. Generally, recruitment and activation of brown fat occurs in response to cold exposure. An increase in brown fat activity via paternal cold exposure around conception may therefore lead the offspring to have an increased ability to adapt to overnutrition. Additionally, individuals who experience cold outdoor temperatures later in life, should be at a lower risk for developing obesity and diabetes.

In this project, we first investigate if exposure to cold temperatures at conception is associated with a set of markers of obesity and diabetes. Previous research only studied the effects of either prenatal or postnatal cold exposure. We look at both and analyse whether the effect of cold exposure around conception varies by exposure to cold temperatures in later-life. If temperatures around the time of conception and later in life are low, then brown fat activity is likely to be high and thus to have a protective function against obesity and diabetes due to its fat-burning characteristic. However, individuals moving to warmer areas likely profit less from cold exposure around conception in terms of metabolic health than people staying in their place of birth.

Obesity and diabetes are major public health issues worldwide. This research extends knowledge on the fetal origins of metabolic health. Moreover, this study contributes to the investigation of the public health impacts of climate change. As individuals are less and less likely to be exposed to cold winters, this may lead to a lower metabolic activity of brown fat. Since brown fat confers beneficial effects on the accumulation of excess body fat, global warming could result in higher obesity rates and diabetes prevalence.

Estimated project duration: 24 months.