Although ciliary neurotropic factor (CNTF) is a tropic factor in nervous system development and maintenance, peripheral administration of this cytokine also causes severe anorexia and weight loss. The neural mechanism(s) mediating the loss of appetite is not known. As hypothalamic neuropeptide Y (NPY) is a potent orexigenic signal, we tested the hypothesis that CNTF may adversely affect NPYergic signaling in the hypothalamus. Intraperitoneal administration of CNTF (250 microg/kg) daily for 4 days significantly suppressed 24-h food intake in a time-dependent manner and decreased body weight. The loss in body weight was similar to that which occurred in pair-fed (PF) rats. As expected, hypothalamic NPY gene expression, determined by measurement of steady state prepro-NPY messenger RNA by ribonuclease protection assay, significantly increased in PF rats in response to energy imbalance. However, despite a similar loss in body weight, there was no increase in NPY gene expression in CNTF-treated rats. Daily administration of CNTF intracerebroventricularly (0.5 or 5.0 microg/rat) also produced anorexia and body weight loss. In this experiment, negative energy balance produced by both PF and food deprivation augmented hypothalamic NPY gene expression. However, despite reduced intake and loss of body weight, no similar increment in hypothalamic NPY gene expression was observed in CNTF-treated rats. In fact, in rats treated with higher doses of CNTF (5.0 microg/rat), NPY gene expression was reduced below the levels seen in control, freely fed rats. Furthermore, CNTF treatment also markedly decreased NPY-induced feeding. These results suggested that anorexia in CNTF-treated rats may be due to a deficit in NPY supply and possibly in the release and suppression of NPY-induced feeding. The possibility that CNTF-induced anorexia may be caused by increased leptin was next examined. Daily intracerebroventricular injections of leptin (7 microg/rat) decreased food intake, body weight, and hypothalamic NPY gene expression in a manner similar to that seen after CNTF treatment. Leptin administration also suppressed NPY-induced feeding. However, peripheral and central CNTF injections markedly decreased leptin messenger RNA in lipocytes, indicating a deficiency of leptin in these rats; thus, leptin was unlikely to be involved in appetite suppression. Thus, these results show that a two-pronged central action of CNTF, causing diminution in both NPY availability and the NPY-induced feeding response, may underlie the severe anorexia. Further, unlike other members of the cytokine family, suppression of NPYergic signaling in the hypothalamus by CNTF does not involve up-regulation of leptin, but may involve a direct action on hypothalamic NPY neurons or on neural circuits that regulate NPY signaling in the hypothalamus.