How Does Fat Affect Muscle Function?

UMass Amherst researchers engaged in high-tech, multidisciplinary study
Muscle scan

AMHERST, Mass. – From arthritis and heart failure to diabetes and menopause, many conditions are associated with muscle weakness and increased fat deposits.

Now a multidisciplinary team of researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is applying a unique approach to examine the effects of fat tissue on skeletal muscle structure and function in young and older men and women.

Armed with a two-year, $374,188 grant from the National Institute on Aging, lead investigator Jane Kent, professor and chair of kinesiology in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences, and colleagues will combine state-of-the-art, noninvasive magnetic resonance imaging and spectroscopy techniques with whole-body, single-cell and molecular measures of muscle function.

“As muscle typically contributes 30-40% of total body mass, this metabolically active tissue plays a direct role in maintaining good health,” Kent explains. “Currently, we do not know the mechanical consequences of fat infiltration on muscle. Our hypothesis is that fat physically limits muscle strength by interfering with the way the muscle was designed to work.”

The collaborative research is being performed in the Human Magnetic Resonance and Human Health and Performance centers at the Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS), where scientists strive to translate fundamental research into innovations that benefit humankind. Advanced data analysis will be carried out in the Muscle Physiology and Muscle Biology Laboratories in the Totman building.

Kent is working with kinesiology assistant professor Mark Miller, endocrinologist and research professor of kinesiology Dr. Stuart Chipkin, math and statistics professor emeritus John Buonaccorsi and professor Bruce Damon from the Vanderbilt University Institute of Imaging Science. Graduate students Joseph Gordon III and Christopher Hayden, along with project coordinator Nicholas Remillard, round out the research team.

Kent says the innovative research may yield new knowledge about the effects of fat on muscle activity, information that has potential health benefits.

“Understanding the impact adipose tissue has on skeletal muscle has the potential to markedly alter our approach to mitigating and reversing muscle dysfunction in aging and the large number of conditions associated with increased fat content in muscle,” Kent says.

The research team is recruiting volunteers to round out the study group of overweight and obese young adults, age 25-45, and healthy older adults, age 65-75. Participants would be required to visit the campus up to three times and would receive financial compensation for their time. To learn more about the study, contact Nicholas Remillard, the project coordinator, at 413-545-5305 or