OBJECTIVE: When animals are allowed free access to food following an extended period of food restriction, body weight is steadily restored to the pre-food restriction level, ie to a specific body weight 'set-point'. We tested the proposition that leptin is used as a signal by the brain to regulate body weight 'set-point'. To this end, we determined whether long-term leptin infusion in rats would prevent the normal weight regain after food restriction. METHODS: Male Sprague-Dawley rats received leptin (leptin-treated) or saline (vehicle-treated) by intravenous infusion. After a 2 week run-in period, food intake was adjusted to 50% of each individual's normal intake for 12 days. Two days prior to the return of unlimited access to food, one group of animals received continuous leptin infusion at 3 micro g/h for the next 14 days. Blood samples taken from the tail vein were used to determine leptin concentrations. A third group of animals that did not undergo food restriction but received saline infusion served as control. As leptin acts in the brain to modulate neuropeptide Y (NPY) levels, hypothalamic NPY content was measured at the end of the study. RESULTS: Food restriction to 50% normal intake for 12 days induced a 20% weight loss and significant reductions in plasma leptin compared with non-restricted control rats (0.5+/-0.1 vs 2.6+/-0.4 ng/ml, P<0.05). Intravenous infusion of leptin increased leptin concentrations four-fold compared with vehicle-treated animals (9.5+/-1.3 vs 2.2+/-0.4 ng/ml, P<0.05). The infusion of leptin attenuated the increase in daily food intake after free access to food was resumed (P<0.05 at 4, 6 and 8 days). Despite this, both groups of previously restricted rats had regained the same amount of weight after 12 days of ad libitum feeding. No difference was noted in NPY levels measured in the arcuate nucleus and the paraventricular nucleus, in line with the similar amounts of food eaten by all rats at the end of the experiment. CONCLUSION: Increasing plasma leptin concentrations just prior to the end of a period of food restriction reduced subsequent food intake, but did not appear to exert a major influence on the body weight 'set-point', as leptin did not prevent weight regain. The results of the present study suggest that leptin may be of little value in maintaining weight loss in individuals who have lost weight through dieting. Further research is required to understand the role of leptin in the regulation of energy balance.