Hypothalamic neuropeptides play a role in appetite and weight regulation. Food restriction for 2 weeks and food deprivation for 4 days were used as models to characterize the effects of weight loss on hypothalamic peptide gene expression in male and female rats. We used in situ hybridization to examine the mRNA levels of hypothalamic peptides which stimulate and inhibit food intake and found selective effects primarily in the arcuate nucleus. Neuropeptide Y (NPY) mRNA was increased and pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC) and galanin (GAL) mRNA were decreased in the hypothalamic arcuate nucleus and corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) mRNA was decreased in the hypothalamic paraventricular nucleus in male and female food-restricted and food-deprived rats. Food restriction produced larger changes in peptide mRNA expression than did food deprivation. Changes in NPY, POMC and CRH gene expression induced by food restriction were greater in male than female rats. Elevated NPY and reduced CRH gene expression may be a compensatory physiological response to restore food intake in food-restricted and food-deprived animals. The discrete changes in NPY, POMC, GAL and CRH gene expression in food-restricted and food-deprived animals suggest the involvement of these peptides in abnormal appetitive behavior and weight loss associated with human eating disorders.