Leptin, the product of the ob gene, is an adipocyte-derived hormone that signals the amount of adipose tissue energy stores to the brain and exerts major effects on energy homeostasis and neuroendocrine function. Leptin has recently been shown to affect reproductive function in leptin-deficient and normal rodents. As puberty, the process of sexual maturation and acquisition of reproductive competence, has been proposed to be triggered by the attainment of a critical amount and/or distribution of fat, we examined whether changes in circulating leptin levels could represent the hormonal signal responsible for triggering the onset of puberty in humans. Eight prepubertal boys (Tanner genital stage 1 or early stage 2 at the initiation of the study) were evaluated longitudinally for 2.5-5.1 yr depending on when Tanner stage 5 of genital development was achieved. Sera for the determination of leptin, testosterone, and dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate were obtained every 4 months during the period of the study. Compared to baseline prepubertal levels (8 months before the onset of puberty, as defined by the initial rise in testosterone above the detection limit of the assay), leptin levels rose by approximately 50% just before the onset of puberty and decreased to approximately baseline values after the initiation of puberty (P < 0.01, by ANOVA), remaining stable for more than 2 yr. These changes occurred despite constantly increasing body mass index (P < 0.05, by ANOVA). No significant association between leptin and dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate concentrations was detected. In conclusion, the levels of circulating leptin are consistent with the hypothesis that this molecule is an important signal responsible for triggering the onset of puberty. The stimulus for a surge in leptin levels just before the onset of puberty is currently unknown.