Background: There is epidemiological evidence that perinatal nutritional factors may have long-term effects on obesity. Which nutrients or food components are involved in this programming mechanism are unknown. Breast milk contains leptin, a hormone that regulates food intake and energy expenditure, and previous studies in rats have shown that leptin orally administered during lactation exerts anorexigenic effects.
Objective: To evaluate whether supplementation with physiological doses of oral leptin during lactation has long-term effects on body weight regulation.
Design: A daily oral dose of leptin (equivalent to five times the amount of leptin ingested normally from maternal milk during the suckling period) or the vehicle was given to suckling male rats during lactation. Animals were fed after weaning with a normal fat (NF) or a high-fat (HF) diet. We followed body weight and food intake of animals until the age of 6 months, and measured the size of adipose tissue depots, the thermogenic capacity, the expression of leptin in the stomach and adipose tissues and the expression of two appetite-related peptides (neuropeptide Y (NPY) and proopiomelanocortin (POMC)), leptin receptor (OB-Rb) and suppressor of cytokine signalling 3 (SOCS-3) in the hypothalamus at the age of 6 months.
Results: Leptin-treated animals had, in adulthood, lower body weight and fat content and ate fewer calories than their untreated controls. Unlike adipocitary leptin production, adult animals that were leptin-treated during lactation displayed higher gastric leptin production without changes in OB-Rb mRNA levels. In addition, in response to HF diet, leptin-treated animals (contrary to controls) showed lower hypothalamic NPY/POMC mRNA ratio. Hypothalamic OB-Rb mRNA levels decreased in control animals as an effect of HF diet feeding, but remained unchanged in leptin-treated animals; SOCS-3 mRNA levels were lower in leptin-treated animals than in their controls, both under normal or HF diet.
Conclusion: The animals that received leptin during lactation become more protected against fat accumulation in adult life and seem to be more sensitive to the short- and long-term regulation of food intake by leptin. Thus, leptin plays an important role in the earlier stages of neonatal life, as a component of breast milk, in the prevention of later obesity.