Identification of Novel Neurocircuitry Through Which Leptin Targets Multiple Inputs to the Dopamine System to Reduce Food Reward Seeking

Biol Psychiatry. 2021 Dec 15;90(12):843-852. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2021.02.017. Epub 2021 Feb 23.


Background: Leptin reduces the motivation to obtain food by modulating activity of the mesolimbic dopamine (DA) system upon presentation of cues that predict a food reward. Although leptin directly reduces the activity of ventral tegmental area (VTA) DA neurons, the majority of leptin receptor (LepR)-expressing DA neurons do not project to the nucleus accumbens, the projection implicated in driving food reward seeking. Therefore, the precise locus of leptin action to modulate motivation for a food reward is unresolved.

Methods: We used transgenic mice expressing Cre recombinase under the control of the LepR promoter, anatomical tracing, optogenetics-assisted patch-clamp electrophysiology, in vivo optogenetics with fiber photometric calcium measurements, and chemogenetics to unravel how leptin-targeted neurocircuitry inhibits food reward seeking.

Results: A large number of DA neurons projecting to the nucleus accumbens are innervated by local VTA LepR-expressing GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) neurons. Leptin enhances the activity of these GABA neurons and thereby inhibits nucleus accumbens-projecting DA neurons. In addition, we find that lateral hypothalamic LepR-expressing neurons projecting to the VTA are inhibited by leptin and that these neurons modulate DA neurons indirectly via inhibition of VTA GABA neurons. In accordance with such a disinhibitory function, optogenetically stimulating lateral hypothalamic LepR projections to the VTA potently activates DA neurons in vivo. Moreover, we found that chemogenetic activation of lateral hypothalamic LepR neurons increases the motivation to obtain a food reward only when mice are in a positive energy balance.

Conclusions: We identify neurocircuitry through which leptin targets multiple inputs to the DA system to reduce food reward seeking.

Keywords: Dopamine; Food reward; GABA; Lateral hypothalamus; Leptin; Ventral tegmental area.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Dopamine*
  • Dopaminergic Neurons / metabolism
  • Leptin*
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Reward
  • Ventral Tegmental Area


  • Leptin
  • Dopamine