Recent advances in our understanding of the regulation of body weight, appetite, and metabolic rate have highlighted the role of the adipose-derived hormone leptin and its receptor as fundamental modulators of these processes. Investigations of the neural targets for leptin action - as well as characterization of the agouti obesity syndrome - have, in turn, led to the discovery of fundamental neural pathways involved in the central regulation of energy homeostasis. In particular, the central melanocortin system has been shown to regulate appetite and metabolic rate in rodents; mutations in this system have been demonstrated to result in obesity in humans. Overall, the melanocortin system appears to function as a bidirectional rheostat in the regulation of energy intake and expenditure in rodents and potentially in humans. The first section of this chapter will focus on the development of our understanding of melanocortin physiology in the context of obesity. In particular, recent data regarding the interplay between melanocortin and neuropeptide Y (NPY) signaling at a cellular level will be discussed. The following section will discuss the hypothesis that melanocortin signaling plays a role in pathological weight loss and hypermetabolism observed in murine cachexia models. The potential role of this system in integrating a variety of anorexic and cachexic signals, as well as the potential for its pharmacological manipulation in the treatment of human cachexia, will be discussed.
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