Leptin exerts important effects on the regulation of food intake and energy expenditure by acting in the brain. Leptin is secreted by adipocytes into the bloodstream and must gain access to specific regions in the brain involved in regulating energy balance. Its action is mediated by interaction with a receptor that is mainly expressed in the hypothalamus but is also present in other cerebral areas. To reach these target areas, leptin most likely needs to cross the blood-brain barrier (BBB). In this study, we compared the permeability of leptin at the BBB in homozygous lean (FA/FA), high-fat diet-induced (HFD) obese rats (FA/FA rats on a highfat diet), and genetically obese fa/fa Zucker rats by quantifying the permeability coefficient surface area (PS) product after correction for the residual plasma volume (Vp) occupied by leptin in the vessel bed of different brain regions. The intravenous bolus injection technique was used in the cannulated brachial vein and artery using leptin radioiodinated with 2 isotopes of iodine (125I and 131I) to separately determine the PS and Vp values. The PS for leptin at the BBB in lean FA/FA rats ranged from 11.0 +/- 1.6 at the cortex to 14.8 +/- 1.4 x 10(-6) ml x g(-1) x ml(-1) at the posterior hypothalamus. The PS for leptin in HFD obese FA/FA and obese fa/fa rats ranged from 3.0- to 4.0-fold lower than in lean FA/FA rats. The Vp values were not significantly different among the 3 groups studied. SDS-PAGE analysis of the radioiodinated leptin after 60 min of uptake revealed intact protein in the 8 different brain regions. Plasma leptin levels were significantly higher in both obese rat groups compared with those in lean FA/FA rats. Leptin levels in cerebrospinal fluid were not significantly different among the 3 groups of rats. These findings strongly suggest that the leptin receptor (OB-R) in the BBB can be easily saturated. Saturation of the BBB OB-R in obese individuals would explain the defect in leptin transport into the brain described in this study.