Ghrelin is a 28-amino acid peptide recently identified in the stomach as the endogenous ligand for the growth hormone secretagogue receptor (GHS-R1a). Ghrelin is a potent stimulator of GH secretion. It was recently shown that circulating ghrelin levels in humans rise shortly before and fall shortly after every meal, and that ghrelin administration increases voluntary food intake. The hypothesis that ghrelin hypersecretion might contribute to genetic obesity has never been investigated. In this context, Prader-Willi syndrome is the most common form of human syndromic obesity. As ghrelin affects appetite as well as GH secretion and both are abnormal in PWS, it has been surmised that these alterations might be due to ghrelin dysregulation. The aim of the study was to investigate whether ghrelin is suppressed by the meals differently in PWS children than in PWS adults. Overnight circulating fasting ghrelin levels and ghrelin levels 120 min after breakfast were assayed in 7 PWS children (10.2 +/- 1.7 yr), 7 subjects with morbid obesity (10.3 +/- 1.3 yr), and 5 normal controls (8.4 +/- 1.4 yr). Because of the data spread, no statistical difference was observed in fasting ghrelin levels between PWS and control children (p = NS); anyway, fasting ghrelin levels were significantly lower in obese children than in the other groups (p < 0.05 vs. control and PWS children). Ghrelin levels were slightly suppressed by the meal in control subjects (mean fasting ghrelin: 160.2 +/- 82 pg/ml; after the meal, 141.2 +/- 57 pg/ml, p = NS); the meal failed to suppress ghrelin levels in obese children (mean fasting ghrelin: 126.4 +/- 8.5 pg/ml; after the meal, 119.1 +/- 8.3 pg/ml, p = NS). Interestingly, the meal markedly suppressed ghrelin levels in PWS children (mean fasting ghrelin: 229.5 +/- 70.4 pg/ml; after the meal, 155.8 +/- 34.2 pg/ml, p < 0.01). In conclusion, since a lack of decrease in circulating ghrelin induced by the meal was previously reported in PWS adults, the finding of a meal-induced decrease in ghrelin levels in our population of young PWS would imply that the regulation of the ghrelin system involved in the orexigenic effects of the peptide is operative during childhood, although it progressively deteriorates and is absent in adulthood when hyperphagia and obesity progressively worsen.