In humans, basal muscle sympathetic nerve activity (MSNA), a direct measure of sympathetic nervous outflow, is correlated with percentage of body fat. The underlying physiological mechanism is unknown. On the basis of the observation that leptin increases sympathetic nervous outflow in the ob/ob mouse, we hypothesized that leptin, a hormone secreted by the adipose tissue, may act as a peripheral signal to increase sympathetic nervous outflow from the central nervous system. We therefore tested whether basal MSNA is correlated with plasma leptin concentration. Fasting plasma samples and recordings of basal MSNA in the peroneal nerve were obtained from 37 healthy, nondiabetic men (35 whites and 2 Mexican-Americans; 29 +/- 7 years, 86 +/- 14 kg, 24 +/- 10% body fat; mean +/- SD) who were fed a weight-maintenance diet on a metabolic ward. As expected, plasma leptin concentration (geometric mean, 6.4 ng/mL; 95% confidence interval, 4.6 ng/mL to 9.0 ng/mL) correlated with % body fat (r = 0.93, p < 0.001). Basal MSNA was 31.6 +/- 10.0 bursts/min and correlated with % body fat (r = 0.53, p < 0.001) and with plasma leptin concentration (r = 0.44, p < 0.01). In conclusion, the results demonstrate a correlation between MSNA and plasma leptin concentration of a magnitude similar to that between MSNA and % body fat. Leptin may therefore be the peripheral signal explaining the correlation between MSNA and % body fat. A full understanding of the relationship between leptin and the activity of the sympathetic nervous system requires further studies, including the administration of leptin in humans.