Leptin is an adipose tissue hormone that functions as an afferent signal in a negative feedback loop that maintains homeostatic control of adipose tissue mass. This endocrine system thus serves a critical evolutionary function by protecting individuals from the risks associated with being too thin (starvation) or too obese (predation and temperature dysregulation). Mutations in leptin or its receptor cause massive obesity in mice and humans, and leptin can effectively treat obesity in leptin-deficient patients. Leptin acts on neurons in the hypothalamus and elsewhere to elicit its effects, and mutations that affect the function of this neural circuit cause Mendelian forms of obesity. Leptin levels fall during starvation and elicit adaptive responses in many other physiologic systems, the net effect of which is to reduce energy expenditure. These effects include cessation of menstruation, insulin resistance, alterations of immune function, and neuroendocrine dysfunction, among others. Some or all of these effects are also seen in patients with constitutively low leptin levels, such as occur in lipodystrophy. Leptin is an approved treatment for generalized lipodystrophy, a condition associated with severe metabolic disease, and has also shown potential for the treatment of other types of diabetes. In addition, leptin restores reproductive capacity and increases bone mineral density in patients with hypothalamic amenorrhea, an infertility syndrome in females. Most obese patients have high endogenous levels of leptin, in some instances as a result of mutations in the neural circuit on which leptin acts, though in most cases, the pathogenesis of leptin resistance is not known. Obese patients with leptin resistance show a variable response to exogenous leptin but may respond to a combination of leptin plus amylin. Overall, the identification of leptin has provided a framework for studying the pathogenesis of obesity in the general population, clarified the nature of the biologic response to starvation, and helped to advance our understanding of the neural mechanisms that control feeding.
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