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Physiol Behav. 2001 Nov-Dec;74(4-5):703-8.

Hypothalamic pathways underlying the endocrine, autonomic, and behavioral effects of leptin.

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Department of Neurology, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Program in Neuroscience, Harvard Medical School, 325 Research North, 99 Brookline Avenue, Boston, MA 02215, USA.


Leptin affects feeding, metabolism, and neuroendocrine status. It is now clearly established that the hypothalamus coordinates these responses, though the specific brain regions engaged by leptin remain unclear. We have used combinations of neuroanatomic techniques to identify candidate pathways in the central nervous system underlying leptin action. Leptin decreases body weight in part by activating the sympathetic nervous system, resulting in increased thermogenesis and energy expenditure. We investigated hypothalamic pathways underlying leptin's effects on stimulating the sympathetic nervous system. We found that leptin activates neurons in the retrochiasmatic area (RCA) and lateral arcuate nucleus (Arc) that innervate the sympathetic preganglionic neurons in the thoracic spinal cord and also contain cocaine- and amphetamine-regulated transcript (CART). We also found that CART neurons in the RCA and the Arc coexpress pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC) mRNA. Recent studies have reinforced the view that the lateral hypothalamic area (LHA) regulates food intake and body weight. Using retrograde tracing with leptin administration, we found retrogradely labeled cells in the Arc contained neuropeptide Y (NPY) mRNA or POMC mRNA. Following leptin administration, NPY cells in the Arc did not express Fos but expressed suppressor of cytokine signaling-3 (SOCS-3) mRNA. In contrast, leptin induced both Fos and SOCS-3 expression in POMC neurons, many of which also innervated the LHA. We suggest that leptin directly activates POMC/CART neurons that project to the LHA, the paraventricular hypothalamic nucleus (PVH), and spinal sympathetic preganglionic neurons. These projections link circulating leptin and neurons that regulate feeding behavior, energy expenditure, and body weight homeostasis.

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