Good Buzz: Tiny vibrations may limit fat-cell formation

Young mice that spend time on a mildly vibrating platform increase muscle and bone production at the expense of fat, researchers report. The finding suggests that exposure to subtle mechanical movement—even a modest buzz—might beneficially influence cell formation, says study coauthor Clinton T. Rubin, a bioengineer at Stony Brook (N.Y.) University.

Rubin’s team tested laboratory mice by allowing some to spend 15 minutes a day on buzzing platforms while others remained on solid surfaces. After 9 to 15 weeks, the mice exposed to the vibrations had less fat than the other mice did. Other measurements showed that shaken mice made fewer new fat cells and also had lower concentrations of triglycerides and nonesterified free fatty acids in their livers. Both compounds are linked to type 2, or adult-onset, diabetes. The study will appear in the Nov. 6 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Rubin refrains from extrapolating these findings to people. He also distances himself from companies that sell vibrating platforms as weight reducers. The intense vibration of such machines “is very, very nasty stuff,” he says, and is associated with circulatory disease, hearing loss, back pain, and other ailments.

By comparison, the vibration of the platform used in the mouse experiments is quite restrained. “If you put your hand on it, you can barely feel it,” he says.

Nevertheless, the animals seem to detect these mechanical signals at the cellular level. The researchers tracked the fate of the animals’ newly minted mesenchymal stem cells—blank slate precursor cells made in the bone marrow that can become fat cells, bone cells, or muscle cells. In this study, vibration tilted differentiation in favor of muscle and bone.

“The data suggest a positive effect,” says geneticist Claude Bouchard of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La. “It’s a very intriguing paper, and it’s going to generate a lot of attention.”

Bouchard notes, however, that while shaken mice had lower concentrations of triglycerides and fatty acids, no differences emerged in insulin or blood-glucose measurements. He also says that further tests will need to clarify whether a part of the apparent benefits of the vibration is simply that it causes the mice to burn off some fat. “You would expect that [vibration] would require some muscle contraction,” he says. “The reaction is to try to stick to the ground.”

Although the vibrations fall well short of the jarring motion of exercise, the study may shed new light on the benefits of exercise and the perils of a sedentary lifestyle. Could it be that inactivity causes children to make more fat cells, predisposing them to obesity and diabetes later in life?

“Fat cells are hard to get rid of,” Rubin says. “Interfering with the number of fat cells made could have an impact,” he hypothesizes, “but we’re not suggesting that buzzing reduces diabetes directly.”

He and his team are currently exposing mice to the buzzing for a full year to watch for long-term effects.

In the meantime, he counsels people against “sitting on their washing machines, hoping to get skinny.”


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