The hypothalamus regulates many aspects of energy homeostasis, adjusting both the drive to eat and the expenditure of energy in response to a wide range of nutritional and other signals. It is becoming clear that various neural circuits operate to different degrees and probably serve specific functions under particular conditions of altered feeding behaviour. This review will discuss this functional diversity by illustrating hypothalamic neurones that express neuropeptide Y (NPY), the melanocortin-4 receptor (MC4-R) and the orexins. NPY neurones in the arcuate nucleus (ARC) release NPY, a powerful inducer of feeding and obesity, in the paraventricular nucleus (PVN) and the lateral hypothalamic area (LHA). ARC-NPY neurones are inhibited by leptin and insulin and become overactive when levels of these hormones fall during undernutrition. They may function physiologically to protect against starvation. With disruption of the inhibitory leptin signals due to gene mutations, the NPY neurones are overactive, which contributes to hyperphagia and obesity in the ob/ob and db/db mice and fa/fa Zucker rat. The MC4-R is activated by alpha-melanocyte-stimulating hormone [alpha-MSH; a cleavage product of pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC), which is expressed in the other ARC neurones] and inhibits feeding. This effect is antagonised by agouti gene-related peptide (AGRP), which is coexpressed by the ARC-NPY neurones only. Activation of MC4-R, possibly mediated by blockade of AGRP release, appears to restrain overeating of a palatable diet. This response may be programmed by a transient rise in leptin soon after presentation of palatable food, and rats that fail to do this will overeat and become obese. Orexin-A and -B (corresponding to hypocretins 1 and 2) are expressed in specific LHA neurones. These have extensive reciprocal connections with many areas involved in appetite control, including the nucleus of the solitary tracts (NTS), which relays vagal afferent satiety signals from the viscera. Orexin neurones also have close anatomical connections with LHA glucose-sensitive neurones. Orexin-A induces acute feeding but does not cause obesity. Orexin neurones are stimulated by hypoglycaemia partly via the NTS and inhibited by food ingestion. These neurones may therefore be involved in the severe hyperphagia of hypoglycaemia and short-term control of feeding.