Marked disturbance in eating behaviour and obesity are common sequelae of hypothalamic damage. To investigate whether these were associated with dysfunctional leptin central feedback, we evaluated serum leptin and leptin binding activity in 37 patients (age 3.5-21 yr) with tumour or trauma involving the hypothalamic-pituitary axis compared with 138 healthy children (age 5.0-18.2 yr). Patients were subdivided by BMI <2 SDS or > or = 2 SDS and healthy children and children with simple obesity of comparable age and pubertal status served as controls. Patients had higher BMI (mean 1.9 vs 0.2 SDS; p <0.001), a greater proportion had BMI > or = 2 SDS (54% vs 8%; p <0.001) and higher serum leptin (mean 2.1 vs 0.04 SDS; p <0.001) than healthy children. Serum leptin (mean 1.1 vs -0.1 SDS; p = 0.004) and values adjusted for BMI (median 0.42 vs 0.23 microg/l:kg/m2; p = 0.02) were higher in patients with BMI <2 SDS. However, serum leptin adjusted for BMI was similar in patients with BMI > or = 2 SDS compared to corresponding controls (1.08 vs 0.95; p = 0.6). Log serum leptin correlated with BMI SDS in all subject groups but the relationship in patients with BMI <2 SDS was of higher magnitude (r = 0.65, slope = 0.29, p =0.05 for difference between slopes) than in healthy controls (r = 0.42, slope = 0.19). Serum leptin binding activity (median 7.5 vs 9.3%; p = 0.02) and values adjusted for BMI (median 0.28 vs 0.48 % x m2/kg; p <0.001) were lower in patients than in healthy children. The markedly elevated leptin levels with increasing BMI in non-obese patients with hypothalamic-pituitary damage are suggestive of an unrestrained pattern of leptin secretion. This along with low leptin binding activity and hence higher free leptin levels would be consistent with central leptin insensitivity.