Assessing the Reliability of an Infrared Thermography Protocol to Assess Cold-Induced Brown Adipose Tissue Activation in French Psychology Students


  • Nathan Vidal Orcid
  • Joseph T. Costello Orcid
  • Blandine Ribotta Orcid
  • Lilas Gurgand Orcid
  • Hans IJzerman Orcid


The authors use infrared thermography measurements of skin temperature to non-invasively assess the heat production of Brown Adipose Tissue (BAT). In species other than humans, BAT has been linked to maternal care, and may thus be crucial for understanding differences in attachment security. Whereas early BAT research measured its relative presence in the human body through radioactive tracers, researchers have recently used infrared thermography measurement of skin temperature in cold conditions to study BAT thermogenesis outside of medical facilities. Infrared thermography relies on comparing skin temperature in the supraclavicular region (where a BAT depot is located) with skin temperature in the sternal region (which contains no BAT depots) in cold conditions, when the supraclavicular BAT depot produces heat. We replicated an infrared thermography protocol, which previously reported an increase of 0.2 °C in supraclavicular (vs. sternal) skin temperature in cold (vs. control) conditions in only 7 adults, which probably led to overestimation of the effect. With a much larger sample size (N = 94 young adults) and a similar protocol, we did not find any significant variation in relative, Cohen’s d = 0.10, 95% CI [-0.31, 0.50], or absolute supraclavicular skin temperature, Cohen’s d = 0.11, 95% CI [-0.30, 0.52]. Using conditional random forests, we also excluded a variety of alternative explanations for why the method failed to achieve an effect. This protocol of infrared thermography cannot measure BAT thermogenesis and is thus not recommended for future studies to study individual differences in attachment.