Leptin Signaling, Adiposity, and Energy Balance


Address for correspondence: Prof. E. Jéquier, Institut de Physiologie, 7 rue du Bugnon, 1005 Lausanne, Switzerland. Fax: +41-21-692-55-95; Eric.Jequier@iphysiol.unil.ch.


Abstract: A chronic minor imbalance between energy intake and energy expenditure may lead to obesity. Both lean and obese subjects eventually reach energy balance and their body weight regulation implies that the adipose tissue mass is “sensed”, leading to appropriate responses of energy intake and energy expenditure. The cloning of the ob gene and the identification of its encoded protein, leptin, have provided a system signaling the amount of adipose energy stores to the brain. Leptin, a hormone secreted by fat cells, acts in rodents via hypothalamic receptors to inhibit feeding and increase thermogenesis. A feedback regulatory loop with three distinct steps has been identified: (1) a sensor (leptin production by adipose cells) monitors the size of the adipose tissue mass; (2) hypothalamic centers receive and integrate the intensity of the leptin signal through leptin receptors (LRb); (3) effector systems, including the sympathetic nervous system, control the two main determinants of energy balance—energy intake and energy expenditure. While this feedback regulatory loop is well established in rodents, there are many unsolved questions about its applicability to body weight regulation in humans. The rate of leptin production is related to adiposity, but a large portion of the interindividual variability in plasma leptin concentration is independent of body fatness. Gender is an important factor determining plasma leptin, with women having markedly higher leptin concentrations than men for any given degree of fat mass. The ob mRNA expression is also upregulated by glucocorticoids, whereas stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system results in its inhibition. Furthermore, leptin is not a satiety factor in humans because changes in food intake do not induce short-term increases in plasma leptin levels. After its binding to LRb in the hypothalamus, leptin stimulates a specific signaling cascade that results in the inhibition of several orexigenic neuropeptides, while stimulating several anorexigenic peptides. The orexigenic neuropeptides that are downregulated by leptin are NPY (neuropeptide Y), MCH (melanin-concentrating hormone), orexins, and AGRP (agouti-related peptide). The anorexigenic neuropeptides that are upregulated by leptin are α-MSH (α-melanocyte-stimulating hormone), which acts on MC4R (melanocortin-4 receptor); CART (cocaine and amphetamine-regulated transcript); and CRH (corticotropin-releasing-hormone). Obese humans have high plasma leptin concentrations related to the size of adipose tissue, but this elevated leptin signal does not induce the expected responses (i.e., a reduction in food intake and an increase in energy expenditure). This suggests that obese humans are resistant to the effects of endogenous leptin. This resistance is also shown by the lack of effect of exogenous leptin administration to induce weight loss in obese patients. The mechanisms that may account for leptin resistance in human obesity include a limitation of the blood-brain-barrier transport system for leptin and an inhibition of the leptin signaling pathways in leptin-responsive hypothalamic neurons. During periods of energy deficit, the fall in leptin plasma levels exceeds the rate at which fat stores are decreased. Reduction of the leptin signal induces several neuroendocrine responses that tend to limit weight loss, such as hunger, food-seeking behavior, and suppression of plasma thyroid hormone levels. Conversely, it is unlikely that leptin has evolved to prevent obesity when plenty of palatable foods are available because the elevated plasma leptin levels resulting from the increased adipose tissue mass do not prevent the development of obesity. In conclusion, in humans, the leptin signaling system appears to be mainly involved in maintenance of adequate energy stores for survival during periods of energy deficit. Its role in the etiology of human obesity is only demonstrated in the very rare situations of absence of the leptin signal (mutations of the leptin gene or of the leptin receptor gene), which produces an internal perception of starvation and results in a chronic stimulation of excessive food intake.