Background and aims: Leptin, the ob gene product, plays a key role in the regulation of body fat mass and weight in adult life. The mechanisms by which maternal and fetal/neonatal weight are regulated during human pregnancy and in early postnatal life are poorly understood. High leptin levels are observed in women during gestation and in cord blood at term. We have hypothesized that high leptin levels at term could represent an important feed-back indicator of nutrient supply. Subsequently, leptin could signal adipose tissue status during late gestation and during early neonatal life.
Subjects and methods: 51 healthy newborns were studied. Clinical and auxological data (birth length, weight, and iliac, subscapular, biceps and triceps skinfold thickness) were recorded using a standardized data sheet. Venous cord blood was obtained immediately after birth in all neonates. Subsequently, capillary blood was obtained from the heel from some of the newborns when blood had to be obtained because of signs or symptoms of particular problems such as hypoglycaemia or hyperbilirubinaemia, at the following time points: two to four hours after birth in 51 infants, 56-79 h after birth in 47 infants and 99-128 h after birth in 23 of the newborns. The ratio between the sexes (girls/boys) was similar at all time points. The infants that were included in the study were subsequently found to be normal and healthy after analysis of the clinical and biochemical data. A specific ultrasensitive radioimmunoassay was used to measure leptin, while growth hormone and insulin were measured using commercially available immunoassays.
Results: Gestational age was 38-42 weeks, maternal age was 21-42 years. Birth weights ranged from 2480 to 4400 g. All newborns and mothers were subsequently found to be healthy. Leptin levels in venous cord blood was 0.16-6.80 microg/l, median 3. 47 microg/l and in capillary blood shortly after birth 0.26-7.03 microg/l, median 3.89 microg/l. 56-79 h after birth leptin levels had fallen dramatically, range 0.02-1.69 microg/l, median 0.26 microg/l, while 99-128 h after birth, leptin concentrations in capillary blood (0.05-2.61 microg/l, median 0.59 microg/l) had significantly increased when compared to the levels at 56-79 h (P < 0.001). There was a significant correlation between leptin levels in umbilical vein and birth weight of the neonates (r = 0.57, P < 0.03). Multistep regression analysis revealed that weight and skinfold thickness accounted for approximately 35-70% of the variation of leptin levels. Insulin and growth hormone, and glucose and bilirubin however, had no major impact on leptin levels.
Conclusion: High leptin levels are present in cord blood at birth and in capillary blood shortly after birth. Since leptin levels in cord blood correlate with birth weight it is tempting to speculate that in the fetus as in later life leptin is signalling expansion of fat stores. Most importantly, we now report that leptin levels are high in the fetus but decline rapidly and dramatically after birth in healthy neonates. This may be important for the stimulation of feeding behaviour and the acquisition of energy homeostasis in the neonate.