Phenytoin (diphenylhydantoin, DPH), an anticonvulsant drug for epileptic patients, has several adverse effects, including calvarial thickening and coarsening of the facial features, which occur with chronic DPH therapy. While previous studies have demonstrated that DPH has an anabolic action on bone cells in vivo and in vitro, the basis of these effects is not fully understood. In this study, the effect of DPH on osteoblastic differentiation of fetal rat calvaria (RC) cells in culture was investigated by measuring bone nodule (BN) formation, cell growth, alkaline phosphatase (ALPase) activity, collagen synthesis, and expression of osteocalcin (OC) and osteopontin (OP) mRNAs. Continuous treatment of RC cells with DPH for 18 days dose-dependently increased the mineralized BN number by 1.2-1.7-fold at concentrations of 12.5-200 micromol/L DPH. Cell growth was not affected at the same concentrations of DPH. ALPase activity was stimulated by DPH (1.1-1.9-fold) dose-dependently and was maintained at higher levels in DPH-treated cells throughout the experimental period. DPH increased mineralized and unmineralized BN formations both in the presence and the absence of 10(-8) mol/L dexamethasone (Dex). Expression of OC and OP mRNAs was markedly augmented by DPH on days 12-24 and on days 12-18, respectively. While control mRNA levels of OC and OP increased with time, the increases in DPH-treated cells were greater than those of the controls and the stimulatory effects were dose-dependent. Type I collagen was also influenced by DPH; mRNA level was enhanced and the percentage of collagen synthesized was increased significantly, by 200 micromol/L DPH. When DPH was added in three different culture stages, days 1-6 (growth), days 7-12 (matrix development), and days 13-18 (mineralization), BN formation was influenced primarily on days 1-6 and secondarily on days 7-12, but not on days 13-18, suggesting that DPH increased BN formation by enhancing not only the proportion of osteoprogenitor cells in the early stage but also the proportion of functional osteoblasts in the middle stage within mixed-cell populations. Moreover, such increases were detected in conditions of both Dex(+) and Dex(-). These findings demonstrate that DPH stimulates osteoblast-associated markers such as BNs, ALPase, OC, OP, and type I collagen by continuously affecting the stages of growth and matrix development in RC cells, and suggests that the stimulatory effects by DPH may possibly be induced independent of those by Dex.