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Logo of nihpaAbout Author manuscriptsSubmit a manuscriptHHS Public Access; Author Manuscript; Accepted for publication in peer reviewed journal;
Cell Metab. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2012 December 7.
Published in final edited form as:
PMCID: PMC3240844

This article has been retractedRetraction in: Cell Metab. 2015 April 22; 21(4): 648    See also: PMC Retraction Policy

Impairment of central leptin-mediated PI3K signaling manifested as hepatic steatosis independent of hyperphagia and obesity


Hepatic steatosis is generally thought to develop via peripheral mechanisms associated with obesity. We show that chronic central infusion of leptin suppresses hepatic lipogenic gene expression and reduces triglyceride content via stimulation of hepatic sympathetic activity. This leptin function is independent of feeding and body weight but requires phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase (PI3K) signaling. Attenuation of leptin-induced PI3K signaling, brought about by transgenic expression of phosphatase and tensin homolog (PTEN) in leptin receptor neurons, leads to decreased hepatic sympathetic tone and increased triglyceride levels without affecting adiposity or hepatic insulin signaling. Central leptin’s effects on hepatic norepinephrine levels and triglyceride content are blunted in these mutant mice. Simultaneous downregulation of PI3K and signal transducer and activator of transcription-3 (Stat3) in leptin receptor neurons does not exacerbate obesity but causes more severe hepatic steatosis. Together, our results indicate that central cellular leptin resistance in PI3K signaling manifests as hepatic steatosis without causing obesity.


Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is a leading cause of liver dysfunction and affects over 30% of the Western population (Browning et al., 2004). NAFLD is closely associated with obesity and insulin resistance, and is commonly attributed to clinical features of these conditions, such as increased non-esterified fatty acids (NEFA) flux and hyperinsulemia-induced lipogenesis (Brown and Goldstein, 2008; Postic and Girard, 2008). Leptin, an adipocyte-secreted hormone, conveys the body’s energy status to the brain by circulating at levels proportional to body fat mass. Leptin activates multiple signaling pathways, notably Stat3 and PI3K, in neurons that express the long form of the leptin receptor (LepRb; Myers et al., 2008). Mice with defective leptin-mediated Stat3 signaling exhibit hyperphagia and obesity, demonstrating the importance of this pathway in feeding and energy balance (Bates et al., 2003; Piper et al., 2008). In most common forms of obesity, such as diet-induced obesity, body adiposity is elevated despite the presence of hyperleptinemia, indicating impaired leptin function. Leptin, when directly administered into the brain of obese animals, fails to activate its signaling pathways in hypothalamic neurons, a hallmark feature of central cellular leptin resistance (Myers et al., 2010). Importantly, impairment of leptin-induced Stat3 and PI3K signaling pathways can be uncoupled temporally upon short term exposure to high fat feeding (Metlakunta et al., 2008), suggesting differential regulation by distinct mechanisms during diet-induced obesity.

Leptin deficiency in humans and rodents leads to obesity, insulin resistance and hepatic steatosis (Farooqi and O’Rahilly, 2005). Diet-induced obesity, another leptin insufficient state due to leptin resistance, is also accompanied by hepatic steatosis. Chronic leptin administration inhibits liver stearoyl-CoA desaturase 1 (Scd1) gene expression compared to pair-fed animals, and deletion of Scd1 in leptin deficient mice reduces feeding, body weight and hepatic steatosis (Cohen et al., 2002). In addition, chronic intracerebroventricular (icv) injection of leptin causes downregulation of genes encoding Scd1, acetyl-coenzyme A-carboxylase (Acc), fatty acid synthase (Fas) in the liver when compared with vehicle-infused pair-fed rats (Gallardo et al., 2007), suggesting that leptin acts in the brain to suppress liver lipogenic gene expression via a mechanism independent of feeding. Here we show that chronic central administration of leptin activates the sympathetic nervous system to suppress expression of lipogenic genes in the liver. Furthermore, attenuation of leptin-mediated PI3K signaling in LepRb neurons causes decreased sympathetic tone in the liver, and increased hepatic steatosis without affecting body adiposity. Collectively, these results suggest that central cellular leptin resistance, mediated by impairment of leptin-induced PI3K signaling, can manifest as hepatic steatosis in the absence of obesity.


Central leptin decreases hepatic triglycerides independent of food intake

Adult leptin-deficient ob/ob mice have severe obesity and hepatic steatosis. We examined 2 week old pre-obese ob/ob mice and found they have heavier livers and higher liver triglyceride content than control littermates at this age despite similar body weights, suggesting that leptin is required to suppress liver triglyceride content independent of its actions on adiposity (Figure S1A-D). Furthermore plasma leptin concentrations negatively correlate with liver triglyceride content (R2=0.80, P<0.001) in wildtype mice that were fed, fasted or refed (Figure S1E). To assess whether leptin acts in the brain to reduce liver triglyceride content, we continuously infused leptin into the brain of adult wild type mice for 7 days using osmotic minipumps. In this particular experiment, body weight and food intake was not altered in the leptin-treatment group compared to the vehicle treatment, negating the need for pair-feeding (Figure 1A, 1B). Fat depot weights and plasma leptin levels were not different between the vehicle and leptin groups (Figure 1C, 1D). Liver triglyceride levels were significantly reduced and this was associated with decreased hepatic mRNA expression of Acc, Fas and Scd1 (Figure 1E, 1F), but not the mRNA expression of liver pyruvate kinase (L-Pk), sterol regulatory element-binding protein 1c (Srebp1c) or carbohydrate responsive element binding protein (Chrepb). In agreement with the mRNA data, the liver activity of FAS (Figure 1G) and the protein levels of ACC (Figure 1H) were also lower after leptin infusion, with the levels of phosphorylated-ACC appropriate for total levels. Basal AKT phosphorylation was unaltered by central leptin infusion (Figure S2A). Blood glucose and plasma insulin concentrations were lower with leptin treatment (Figure 1I, 1J), although leptin’s suppressive effect on liver Scd1 expression is independent of circulating insulin levels or hepatic insulin action (Biddinger et al., 2006). Collectively, these data show that chronic central leptin action can suppress hepatic triglyceride content via a mechanism independent of food intake and body weight.

Figure 1
icv administration of leptin causes increased liver norepinephrine content and reduced liver triglyceride levels independent of feeding and adiposity

Central leptin infusion increases hepatic sympathetic activity

Leptin has been shown to activate the sympathetic nervous system of humans, primates and rodents (Buettner et al., 2008; Rosenbaum et al., 2005; Satoh et al., 1999; Tang-Christensen et al., 1999). We therefore investigated if the sympathetic nervous system was activated in mice that had received chronic leptin infusion into the brain. Plasma and liver norepinephrine (NE) levels were elevated in leptin-treated mice, indicative of activation of the sympathetic nervous system (Figure 1K-L). Furthermore, the mRNA levels of Acc, Fas and Scd1 all showed significant inverse correlations with liver NE content (Figure 1M-O).

In order to demonstrate that leptin can act within the brain to stimulate hepatic sympathetic activity, we examined NE turnover in mice that had received an icv injection of vehicle or leptin into the lateral ventricle. Determination of the NE turnover rate utilizes administration of tyrosine hydroxylase inhibitor α-MPT that causes a time-dependent decline in liver NE levels (Figures 2A-B; Brodie et al., 1966; Spector et al., 1965). Mice were weight matched prior to the injections (Figure 2C). Mice that had received an icv injection of leptin showed lower liver NE concentrations at the end of the study (Figure 2D), demonstrating increased liver NE turnover (Figure 2E). These data show that leptin acts centrally to increase liver sympathetic nervous activity.

Figure 2
Central leptin administration increases hepatic sympathetic tone and leptin’s suppressive effects on hepatic lipogenic gene expression is lost upon blockade of norepinephrine biosynthesis

We further examined lipogenic gene expression in the livers of the α-MPT/icv-vehicle or α-MPT/icv-leptin treated mice to determine if leptin would inhibit the expression of these genes in the absence of NE biosynthesis. Under these experimental conditions, icv leptin administration led to an increase in liver Acc, Fas and Scd1 mRNA expression; L-Pk, Chrebp and Srebp1c were unaffected (Figure 2F). The enhanced expression of liver lipogenic genes agrees with the greater decline of NE in the liver of α-MPT/icv-leptin treated mice, suggesting that prevailing NE levels may determine the levels of gene expression. The loss of leptin’s suppressive effects on hepatic lipogenic gene expression upon blockade of NE biosynthesis suggests that leptin regulates liver lipid metabolism via activation of the sympathetic nervous system.

Norepinephrine inhibits de novo lipogenic gene expression in liver explants

To demonstrate whether NE directly regulates lipogenic gene expression in the liver, we bathed liver explants in various concentrations (0-10μM) of NE. NE treatment caused a dose-dependent decrease in Acc, Fas and Scd1 mRNA expression (Figure 2G), indicative of direct NE action in the liver.

Inhibition of central PI3K activity blocks leptin’s effects on liver fat content

Leptin fails to activate hypothalamic PI3K activity in the early stages of diet-induced obesity before defects in leptin-induced Stat3 signaling can be detected (Metlakunta et al., 2008). Since hepatic steatosis develops after short term high fat feeding before any significant weight gain (Samuel et al., 2004), we investigated whether leptin-mediated PI3K signaling plays a role in reducing liver triglyceride levels. We infused PI3K inhibitor LY294002 into the brain at a dose that by itself did not affect body weight, food intake, fat depot weight, liver triglyceride levels, or de novo lipogenic gene expression (Figure 3C-L). 7-days of leptin treatment increased phosphorylated AKT levels in the brain without altering total AKT protein levels (Figure 3A-B), and this effect was prevented by LY294002 co-infusion. While chronic infusion of LY294002 into the brain did not affect leptin’s effects on body weight, food intake, or fat mass it significantly blunted the effects of leptin on liver triglyceride levels, Acc, Fas and Scd1 mRNA expression, and FAS enzymatic activity (Figure 3C-K). These data suggest that leptin’s inhibitory effect on liver triglyceride content requires functional PI3K signaling.

Figure 3
PI3K signaling is required for regulation of hepatic norepinephrine levels, lipogenic gene expression and liver triglyceride content by leptin

Like leptin, insulin signals through the PI3K pathway and an acute injection of insulin into the brain also reduces feeding and body weight. However, recent studies have shown that chronic infusion of insulin into the brain increases fat mass without apparent effects on feeding via inhibition of sympathetic nervous system outflow (Koch et al., 2008; Scherer et al., 2011). Since insulin can act directly on hepatocytes to stimulate lipogenesis, we examined whether chronic insulin infusion into the brain would also alter liver triglyceride levels. Infusion of insulin into the brain for 7 days did not alter body weight or food intake, but significantly increased white adipose mass and liver triglyceride content (Figure S2B-E). These results indicate that central leptin and insulin play distinct roles in regulation of liver lipid levels.

Generation of transgenic mice with attenuated PI3K signaling in LepRb-expressing cells

We next sought to determine if down-regulation of leptin-induced PI3K signaling contributes to hepatic steatosis or other metabolic abnormalities. We chose to overexpress PTEN, a phosphatase that reverses PI3K kinase activity in LepRb cells, such that PI3K could be specifically attenuated only in direct leptin targets. This strategy is distinct from approaches that delete certain PI3K subunits, as these often alter expression of non-targeted isoforms causing compensatory changes in kinase activities (Vanhaesebroeck et al., 2005).

Using a Cre-lox transgenic strategy described previously (Reed et al., 2010), we generated transgenic mice carrying a Floxed-Stop-Tg.Pten allele such that exogenous Pten would only be expressed in Cre-positive cells under the control of the constitutively-active CMV promoter (Figure 4A). We first crossed Floxed-Stop-Tg.Pten with Tg.Nestin-Cre mice to generate mutants (Nestin-Pten-OE) where Tg.Pten would be expressed in the entire brain, making quantitative assays possible. Pten mRNA expression in Nestin-Pten-OE mutants was elevated 1.8-fold in the Cre-positive brain, but not in the Cre-negative liver (Figure 4B). Similar increase in PTEN protein expression was observed in the Nestin-Pten-OE hypothalamus (Figure 4C). Phosphorylation of AKT at threonine-308, a critical site for AKT activation by PI3K, is reduced by 50%, while phosphorylation of ERK was not affected (Figure 4C). Nestin-Pten-OE mice exhibited impaired somatic growth, increased adiposity and glucose intolerance, when compared with the Nestin-Cre transgenic mice (Figure S3). These phenotypes recapitulate those of mice carrying a germline “kinase-dead” mutation of PI3K catalytic subunit that also results in a 50% loss of PI3K activity (Foukas et al., 2006).

Figure 4
Generation and characterization of transgenic mice to down-regulate PI3K signaling in LepRb neurons

We next crossed Floxed-Stop-Tg.Pten with Tg.LepRb-Cre mice (Leshan et al., 2006) such that Tg.Pten would be expressed in LepRb-expressing cells only (LepRb-Pten-OE mice). To examine if down-regulation of PI3K signaling would also occur in the liver in addition to the brain of these mutant mice, we examined Cre-mediated recombination in these tissues since expression of Tg.Pten is Cre-dependent. Tg.LepRb-Cre mice were crossed with a Cre-activatable LacZ reporter (R26R; (Soriano, 1999), such that lacZ expression marked cells with Cre recombinase activity. While strong LacZ signal was observed in the hypothalamus of LepRb-Cre/R26R mice, no LacZ signal was observed in hepatocytes (Figure S4A). To rule out sporadic recombination events, liver DNA from all mice included in this study was screened for recombination of the Floxed-Stop-Tg.Pten allele and were negative (Figure S4B). This result indicates that Tg.Pten was not expressed in the hepatocytes of the mutant animals.

Attenuated LepRb neuron PI3K signaling does not alter hypothalamic neuron morphology

Changes in PI3K activity could potentially affect cell growth and differentiation, which could alter neuronal functions independent of dynamic regulation by metabolic signals. Thus, we examined morphologic characteristics of Proopiomelanocortin (Pomc) neurons in LepRb-Pten-OE mice, since the majority expression LepRb (Baskin et al., 1999) and, hence, Tg.Pten. Projection patterns, Pomc cell number and cell size were similar in control and mutants, suggesting that attenuated PI3K signaling does not cause developmental abnormalities of these neurons (Figure S5).

PTEN Overexpression in LepRb neurons abolishes leptin’s ability to activate hypothalamic PI3K signaling

To evaluate the ability of leptin to signal in the mutant animals, leptin-induced hypothalamic Stat3 and PI3K signaling was examined by Western blot analysis in controls and LepRb-Pten-OE mice. While leptin treatment induced phosphorylation of STAT3 to a similar degree in controls and mutants, the ability of leptin to induce the phosphorylation of AKT was severely impaired in the mutant animals (Figure 4D). Total AKT and STAT3 protein levels were similar between controls and mutants (Figure S6A-B). This result indicates that LepRb-Pten-OE mutant mice exhibit specific impairment of leptin-induced PI3K signaling in the hypothalamus.

Attenuated LepRb neuron PI3K signaling causes increased liver triglycerides but not body adiposity

LepRb-Pten-OE mice appear morphologically normal. Body weight, body length, lean and fat mass were indistinguishable between controls and mutants (Figure 5A-E) examined at 5, 8 and 24 weeks of age. Plasma leptin and triglyceride levels were also similar (Figure 5F, 5G). The non-significant trend towards lower body adiposity at 24-weeks of age could be associated with a slight decrease in feeding (Figure 5H). Despite lower food intake and a trend towards lower body adiposity, which would have likely led to reduced liver fat content, LepRb-Pten-OE mice show a significant increase in liver triglyceride levels (Figure 5I).

Figure 5
Attenuation of PI3K signaling in LepRb neurons promotes hepatic steatosis independent of leptin-mediated STAT3 signaling

Attenuated PI3K signaling in LepRb neurons promotes hepatic steatosis independent of leptin-mediated Stat3 signaling

To evaluate potential cross-talk between PI3K and Stat3 signaling in leptin target neurons, we generated mice defective in Stat3 (LepRb-Stat3-KO) or defective in Stat3 and PI3K function (LepRb-Stat3-KO-Pten-OE). As expected, LepRb-Stat3-KO mice developed severe obesity. LepRb-Stat3-KO-Pten-OE mice also developed obesity, and to the same extent as the LepRb-Stat3-KO mice (Figure 5J-K). This result suggests that the lack of body weight phenotype in LepRb-Pten-OE mice is unlikely due to compensatory upregulation of Stat3 signaling. This result also suggests that further reduction of total leptin signaling, Stat3 and PI3K signaling combined, does not cause more severe weight gain, supporting the notion that moderate attenuation of PI3K signaling does not have significant impact on body weight. Interestingly, despite having similar adiposity, LepRb-Stat3-KO-Pten-OE mice exhibited greater liver triglyceride levels compared to LepRb-Stat3-KO mice (Figure 5L). Together, these results demonstrate that attenuation of PI3K signaling in LepRb neurons promotes hepatic steatosis independent from any effects on body weight and adiposity.

Impairement of PI3K signaling in LepRb neurons results in reduced sympathetic tone and increased lipogenic gene expression in the liver

Elevation of liver triglyceride levels in LepRb-Pten-OE mice could be due to increased supply of free fatty acids, increased de novo lipogenesis, reduced β-oxidation, or reduced very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) secretion from the liver. No significant differences in circulating NEFA or glucose were observed (Figure 6A-B). Plasma insulin levels were lower in LepRb-Pten-OE mice (Figure 6C) but no significant difference in insulin-stimulated PI3K signaling was observed in the mutant liver (Figure 6D). Furthermore, insulin levels were similar in LepRb-Stat3-KO (9.31±0.99 after a 4h fast, 3.48±0.40 ng/ml after a 16h fast) and LepRb-Pten-OE-Stat3-KO mice (10.70±1.45 after a 4h fast, 3.45±0.51 ng/ml after a 16h fast), despite higher liver triglyceride levels in the latter genotype, suggesting that hepatic steatosis in these animals are not related to insulin levels. The release of VLDL from the liver was determined by the plasma accumulation of triglycerides after injection of lipoprotein lipase inhibitor Triton WR-1339 in fasted mice, and no differences were observed (Figure 6E). Two genes involved in β-oxidation, carnitine palmitoyltransferase 1 (Cpt1) and peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor alpha (Pparα) did not change significantly (Figure 6F). However, the mRNA expression of Acc, Fas and Scd1 were increased in the livers of LepRb-Pten-OE mice, as well as FAS activity (Figure 6F-G). The hepatic mRNA expression of these lipogenic genes was also increased in LepRb-Pten-OE-Stat3-KO mice when compared to similarly obese LepRb-Stat3-KO mice (Figure S6E).

Figure 6
LepRb-Pten-OE mice show reduced hepatic sympathetic tone and increased lipogenic gene expression in the liver

To examine whether increased liver triglyceride levels in the mutant animals are associated with reduction of sympathetic activity, we carried out a NE turnover assay. The liver NE content was significantly lower at baseline and the turnover rate was markedly reduced in the LepRb-Pten-OE mice, compared with that of the controls (Figure 6H-I). Together, these results suggest that enhanced de novo lipogenic activity contributes to the elevated liver triglyceride content in the mutant mice, which is associated with a reduction in the hepatic sympathetic tone.

Leptin’s effects on liver sympathetic activity, lipogenic gene expression and triglycerides are blunted in LepRb-Pten-OE mice

To evaluate the responsiveness of the LepRb-Pten-OE mutant mice to leptin, we infused vehicle or leptin to control and LepRb-Pten-OE mice via osmotic minipumps for 7 days. Mice were weight-matched at the beginning of the experiment. Central infusion of leptin caused reduction in body weight, food intake, fat depot weight, blood glucose and plasma insulin levels in control and mutant mice to similar extents (Figure 7A), despite the lower baseline insulin levels in the mutants (aCSF infused: controls 1.68±0.13ng/ml, mutants 1.22±0.09ng/ml, p<0.05; leptin infused: controls 0.43±0.09ng/ml, mutants 0.26±0.07ng/ml, p=0.2). In contrast, while vehicle-treated mutant mice showed greater liver triglyceride and Scd1, Acc and Fas mRNA levels (data not shown), leptin’s suppressive effect on these parameters was significantly impaired (Figure 7A-B). Moreover, leptin infusion caused a significant increase of liver NE levels in the controls, but was ineffective in the mutants (Figure 7C). These results suggest that impairment of PI3K signaling in LepRb neurons blunted leptin’s effects on liver sympathetic activity and triglyceride levels.

Figure 7
Leptin’s effects on hepatic sympathetic tone, lipogenic gene expression and liver triglyceride are blunted in LepRb-Pten-OE mice


Regulation of energy balance and hepatic lipid metabolism are integral components of an overall regulatory program to maintain whole body metabolic homeostasis. The liver produces and supplies triglycerides in the form of VLDL to adipose tissue for storage and to muscle for oxidation, processes closely linked to the body’s energy status. We show in this study that leptin acts in the brain through PI3K to reduce hepatic liver triglyceride levels via a mechanism independent of food intake and body weight, and that attenuation of PI3K signaling in LepRb neurons promotes hepatic steatosis independent of obesity. This suggests that leptin regulates energy balance and hepatic lipid metabolism via distinct signaling mechanisms. In support of our findings, development of liver steatosis precedes the onset of obesity upon short term consumption of a high fat diet (Samuel et al., 2004), suggesting that regulation of hepatic liver metabolism and body weight can be uncoupled. Furthermore, the observation that leptin-mediated PI3K, but not Stat3, signaling is impaired after short-term exposure to high fat diet suggests that disruption to leptin-mediated Stat3 and PI3K signaling can occur via different mechanisms (Metlakunta et al., 2008).

The liver is innervated by sympathetic nerves (Yi et al., 2010). By using transynaptic retrograde viral tracing, neurons in multiple sites of the brain, including many hypothalamic nuclei and the nucleus of the solitary tract, are shown to project to the liver, demonstrating that the brain can regulate liver function via autonomic neuronal circuits (Stanley et al., 2010). Since LepRb neurons are abundant in these brain regions (Leshan et al., 2006; Scott et al., 2009), it is likely that coordinated leptin signaling in multiple brain regions is required for proper regulation of hepatic lipid content. Leptin is known to activate the sympathetic nervous system in rodents, primates and humans through increased catecholamine output (Buettner et al., 2008; Rosenbaum et al., 2005; Satoh et al., 1999; Tang-Christensen et al., 1999). We shows that chronic central leptin infusion, via PI3K, elevates liver sympathetic activity and that NE directly exerts an effect on liver lipogenic gene expression.

Our study shows that leptin-mediated PI3K signaling acts to reduce hepatic triglyceride levels by suppressing expression of genes involved in de novo lipogenesis. Prieur and colleagues have suggested that leptin regulates liver lipid metabolism, including Scd1 mRNA expression, primarily through effects on food intake (Prieur et al., 2008). However, other studies show that leptin suppresses liver Scd1 expression to a much greater extent than pair-fed animals (Cohen et al., 2002; Gallardo et al., 2007), suggesting that the effects of leptin on food intake cannot fully explain the hormones actions on liver triglyceride metabolism. These discrepant results are likely due to differences in the method and the duration of leptin treatment. In study of Prieur et al., leptin was injected acutely twice daily via a cannula for 3 days. In contrast, our study and that of Cohen and Gallardo used osmotic minipumps, which allows constant delivery of leptin at a steady rate, for longer periods of time (7-12 days). Prolonged treatment might be necessary to separate the anorectic and other metabolic effects of leptin.

Although the presence of the LepRb in the liver has been suggested, our study indicates that the increase in liver triglyceride levels in LepRb-Pten-OE mice is attributed to impairment of PI3K signaling in the brain, not hepatocytes. Consistently, deletion of leptin receptor gene from hepatocytes and other peripheral tissues does not alter energy balance or liver fat metabolism (Cohen et al., 2001; Guo et al., 2007). It is interesting to note that the increased liver triglyceride levels in LepRb-Pten-OE mice are not accompanied by insulin resistance. Although hepatic steatosis is often associated with insulin resistance in obese individuals, a number of studies have indicated that these two processes can be uncoupled under non-obese conditions (Biddinger et al., 2008; Monetti et al., 2007). Genetic induction of hepatic steatosis in the absence of any other metabolic disturbance causes increased systemic insulin sensitivity via an afferent liver-to-brain autonomic circuit (Uno et al., 2006). It remains to be determined whether this autonomic circuit relays the increased liver triglyceride content of LepRb-Pten-OE mice to the brain that, in turn, would increase systemic insulin sensitivity that could account for the lower plasma insulin levels despite normal blood glucose concentrations of these mutant mice. Consistent with this notion, we found that insulin sensitivity was enhanced in the adipose tissue of LepRb-Pten-OE mice (Figure S6C-D), although we cannot exclude the possibility that a reciprocal pathway exists by which liver triglyceride content could be influenced indirectly by insulin actions in adipose tissue.

Our transgenic model is distinct from gene targeting approaches that delete PI3K subunits, as they often alter the expression of non-targeted isoforms causing compensatory changes in kinase activities (Vanhaesebroeck et al., 2005). In addition, deletion of only one allele of PI3K subunit may not impair PI3K activity if the deleted subunits are not limiting (Foukas et al., 2006). In our model, components of PI3K protein complex are intact, but upregulation of PTEN impairs the ability of leptin to stimulate PI3K signaling, causing cellular leptin resistance. Whilst we cannot rule out the involvement of a non-leptin mediated signal that also activates PI3K in LepRb neurons, such as insulin, multiple lines of evidence indicate that central leptin action underlies the phenotype of LepRb-Pten-OE mice.

First, leptin and insulin exert distinct effects on the neuronal activities of Pomc neurons, and that acute response to leptin and insulin are largely segregated into distinct subpopulations of Pomc neurons (Williams et al., 2010). Second, although acute injection of insulin into the brain decreases feeding, chronic infusion of insulin into the brain increases fat mass without apparent effects on feeding (Koch et al., 2008) via dampened sympathetic activity, increased lipogenesis and inhibited lipolysis in adipose tissue (Scherer et al., 2011). Consistently, we show that chronic central infusion of insulin causes increased fat mass and liver triglyceride levels without affecting food intake. Thus, chronic central insulin and leptin action appear to exert opposite effects on peripheral lipid metabolism, and our mutant phenotype closely reflects down-regulation of leptin function. The fact that LepRb-Pten-OE mice do not show increased fat mass does not support potential enhancement of central insulin sensitivity. Third, whilst it is known that direct insulin action on the liver plays a major role in the regulation of Scd1 gene expression, the inhibitory effect of leptin on liver Scd1 expression is independent of circulating insulin levels or liver insulin receptor function (Biddinger et al., 2006). This suggests that leptin and insulin regulate liver lipid metabolism via distinct mechanisms. Consistent with this notion, insulin-induced liver AKT phosphorylation is not altered in LepRb-Pten-OE mice, although we cannot exclude the possibility that other signaling pathways might be affected in our mutant mice. Forth, in ob/ob mice liver weight and triglyceride contents is increased before the onset of obesity (Knehans and Romsos, 1983, and this study). In addition, while starvation causes dramatic increase in liver triglyceride levels in wildtype mice, starvation of ob/ob mice does not result in hepatic steatosis but rather a decrease in liver triglyceride levels (Salmon and Hems, 1973). Collectively these findings support our notion that the regulation of liver triglyceride levels requires intact leptin function.

Buettner and colleagues have reported that leptin acts in the brain to suppress lipogenesis in white adipose tissue by activation of sympathetic outflow (Buettner et al., 2008). We also examined lipogenic gene expression in the white adipose tissue upon central infusion of leptin. Consistently, we show that central infusion of leptin caused elevation of norephinephrine content and decreased expression of Acc, Fas and Scd1 in white adipose tissue depots (Figures S7A,B). Thus, acute central leptin infusion may activate sympathetic nervous system in both liver and white adipose tissues to inhibit lipogenesis. This notion is supported by anatomical evidence that common neurons in the hypothalamus and brain stem are found in the descending neuronal cascades innervating liver and the adipose tissue (Stanley et al., 2010). It is interesting to note that chronic attenuation of PI3K in leptin receptor expressing cells causes hepatic steatosis without affecting body adiposity (this study). It is possible that sympathetic regulation of hepatic lipid metabolism is more sensitive to perturbations of central leptin signaling, or that redundant mechanisms exist in the white adipose tissue to compensate for the attenuation of leptin signaling. It may further suggest that a moderate degree of leptin resistance could manifest as hepatic steatosis without causing obesity.

In common obesity, such as diet-induced obesity, over-consumption of a palatable diet induces a number of cellular changes that diminishes the ability of leptin to activate signaling pathways in its target neurons, marking the onset of cellular leptin resistance for these signaling pathways (Myers et al., 2010). Leptin resistance impairs the ability of leptin to negatively feedback on food intake and energy storage, sustaining and aggravating the metabolic derangements in diet-induced obesity. Impairment of leptin-stimulated PI3K signaling is one of the early signaling defects associated with cellular leptin resistance, occurring before a reduction of leptin-mediated Stat3 signaling can be detected (Metlakunta et al., 2008), suggesting impairment of various leptin signaling pathways could be governed by distinct mechanisms. Whilst increased feeding and body adiposity are commonly thought to be the primary outcomes of leptin resistance with hepatic steatosis suggested to be a secondary consequence of obesity, our results suggest that a specific form of hypothalamic leptin resistance, marked by impaired leptin-induced PI3K signaling, manifests as hepatic steatosis independent of hyperphagia and obesity. With over 30% of the Western population suffering from NAFLD (Browning et al., 2004), our study provides mechanistic insight into the development of hepatic steatosis, and paves the way for future therapeutic treatment of fatty liver disease.


Generation of mice with Cre-dependent Pten overexpression

Mice with Floxed-Stop-Tg.Pten were generated using a similar strategy as described previously (Reed et al., 2010). Briefly, a DNA fragment containing the cytomegalovirus (CMV) promoter was released from plasmid PHMCMV5 and sub-cloned into the BamHI site of the pΔE1sp1A vector. Full-length mouse Pten cDNA was placed behind a loxP-flanked polyadenylation cassette (4xpA; floxed stop cassette). The resulting fragment was sub-cloned into the pΔE1sp1A downstream of the CMV promoter. A linear 10.5-kilobase DNA fragment containing CMV-floxed-stop-Pten-polyA sequences was purified and microinjected into fertilized eggs from C57BL6/J donors.

Mouse genetics

To generate mice with Pten overexpressed in specific neuronal populations, heterozygous Floxed-Stop-Tg.Pten mice were crossed with mice heterozygous for either Tg.Nestin-Cre (Jackson Laboratory) or Tg.LepRb-Cre (Leshan et al., 2006). LepRb-Stat3-KO and LepRb-PtenOE-Stat3-KO mice were generated by introduction of floxed-Stat3 alleles (Takeda et al., 1998). Controls for LepRb-Pten-OE comprise of +/+;+/+, +/+;Tg.Pten /+ and Tg.LepRb-Cre/+;+/+ genotypes. Controls for LepRb-Stat3-KO/LepRb-Pten-OE-Stat3-KO mice comprise Stat3fl/+, Stat3fl/fl, Tg.Pten/+,Stat3fl/+ or Tg.Pten,Stat3fl/fl genotypes. No differences were seen between different control genotypes so they were pooled for analysis. C57BL/6J mice (JAX) were used for most infusion studies. Mice were group housed in a pathogen free, temperature (22°C), humidity and light (0700h-1900h lights on) controlled environment with ad libitum chow (Purina mouse diet 5058) and water access. All procedures were approved by the University of California San Francisco Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee.

Intracerebroventricular infusion

Anesthetized mice were mounted onto a stereotaxic apparatus (model 1900; David Kopf Instruments) and implanted with an Alzet steel guide cannula (Durect) into the right lateral ventricle (anteroposterior −0.3mm, lateral −1.0mm and dorsoventral −2.5mm below the skull, relative to Bregma) attached to an osmotic minipump (Alzet model 2006, Durect). Minipumps and tubing was filled with vehicle (aCSF; 13% DMSO + 87% aCSF for Figure 3), leptin (4μg/day), insulin (0.2mU/day Novolin R, Novo Nordisk Inc), LY94002 (2.4μg/day, Calbiochem) or leptin and LY294002, as appropriate. For single icv injections, a 2.5mm guide cannula (Plastics One) was implanted into the right lateral ventricle; 1μl of aCSF or leptin (2μg) was infused at 10nl/s via a 2.7mm injector (Plastics One). Correct placement was verified by a robust drinking response to angiotensin II (0.1mg/ml, Sigma) and by postmortem examination.

Norepinephrine turnover assay

NE turnover was calculated by the disappearance of liver NE level with time after administration of α-methyl-p-tyrosine (α-MPT) to block NE biosynthesis, as previously described (Brodie et al., 1966). For Figure 2, mice were deprived of food and injected with α-MPT (250mg/kg in saline ip), 30 min after which a subset of mice were killed by cervical dislocation and tissues collected for NE turnover rate calculations. The remaining mice received an icv injection of aCSF or leptin (2μg; Rahmouni et al., 2003); tissues were collected after 3.5 hours. For Figure 6, 20-24 week old mice received an injection of α-MPT (250mg/kg ip); a subset were killed by cervical dislocation immediately afterwards (0 hour), another subset were killed 4 hours after (4 hour) and a third subset received a second ip injection of α-MPT (125mg/kg ip) 4 hours after the first and were killed 4 hours after (8 hour).

Western blotting

12-week old mice received an injection of saline (10ml/kg) or leptin (3mg/kg); hypothalami were microdissected 45 minutes later. In different experiments, 8-week old mice were fasted overnight, after which received an ip injection of saline (10ml/kg) or insulin (2U/kg or 5U/kg, Novolin R, Novo Nordisk Inc., Princetown, NJ); samples were collected 15 minutes later. SDS-PAGE and Western blotting were performed as previously described (Reed et al., 2010) using standard procedures. The primary antibodies used: PTEN, pAKTser473, pAKTthr308, AKT, pSTAT3tyr705, STAT3 (all Cell Signaling), ACC, pACCser79 (both Upstate), pERKtyr204, ERK or GAPDH (all Santa Cruz Biotechnology).

Hepatic triglyceride secretion

Overnight fasted mice were injected ip with Triton WR-1339 (500mg/kg, Sigma; Millar et al., 2005). Blood was collected prior to and 2, 4 and 6 hours after injection.

Body composition

Lean and fat mass was determined using dual-energy X ray absorptiometry as previously described (Reed et al., 2010). For fat depot weight, the mesenteric, perirenal, epididymal, scapular and inguinal white adipose tissue depots were removed and weights summed.

Liver explant preparation

1mm-thick liver slices (50mg) from 6-week old C57bl/6 male mice were pre-incubated for 2 hours in Krebs-Ringer bicarbonate buffer pH 7.4 at 37°C in a humidified atmosphere saturated with 95% O2-5% CO2, with buffer replaced after 1 and 1.5 hours. Slices were then incubated for 2 hours in buffer containing NE-HCl (Sigma) or no drug, after which tissue was processed for RT-PCR analyses.

Biochemical assays

Plasma insulin, NE and leptin levels were measured using ELISA kits (Alpco Inc., Salem, NH; Crystal Chem, Downers Grove, IL), blood glucose was measured using a Freestyle glucometer (Abbott Diabetes Care), plasma NEFA and triglycerides were measured using colorimetric assays (Wako, Sigma, respectively). Liver triglycerides were extracted using the Folch method (Folch et al., 1957), quantified by colorimetric assay and expressed per mg DNA. Tissue NE concentrations were determined by homogenizing the tissue in 0.01N HCl containing 1mM EDTA and 4mM sodium metabisulfite, followed by extraction and quantification using a NE ELISA (Alpco Diagnostics, Salem, NH), with data expressed per mg or g wet tissue weight. Liver FAS enzymatic activity was determined by the method of Linn (Linn, 1981), and was standardized per mg DNA.

Quantitative RT-PCR

RNA was extracted and reverse-transcribed then PCR-amplified (7900HT Fast Real-Time PCR System) using specific TaqMan® gene expression assays and Universal PCR Master Mix (Applied Biosystems). β-actin was used to normalize expression.


All data are normally distributed (Shapiro Wilks test). Data from two groups were compared using 2 tailed Students t tests. For more than two groups either one- or two-way ANOVA, as appropriate, followed by post hoc tests were performed. For growth curves, repeated-measures ANOVA was used. For correlations, Pearsons correlation was used. Data are expressed as mean ± s.e.m. Significance was defined at p < 0.05.

Research Highlights

  • Leptin suppresses liver lipid content by stimulation of hepatic sympathetic activity.
  • Leptin’s suppressive effects on liver lipid content require PI3K activity.
  • Impairment of leptin-mediated PI3K signaling causes hepatic steatosis without obesity.

Supplementary Material



We thank Drs. Michael Schwartz, Robert Farese Jr., Jacquelyn Maher and Jamila Newton for their evaluation of the manuscript. This work was supported by research grant from the NIH (R01DK080427 to AWX), and in part by a NIH Pediatric Endocrine Training grant (T32DK07161) to ASR. This work was also supported, in part, by core facilities funded by NIH DERC P30 DK063720.


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