Activin is a member of the transforming growth factor-beta superfamily and is thought to be involved in the regulation of bone formation due to its presence in bone tissue and its osteogenic activity both in vitro and in vivo. We recently found that systemic administration of activin increased both tibial bone mass and mechanical strength in young growing rats. The present study investigated the effects of activin in aged ovariectomized (ovx) rats. Twelve-month-old Fischer rats were ovariectomized and maintained for 10 months. Recombinant human activin A (activin) or human parathyroid hormone 1-34 (PTH) was administered intramuscularly three times a week for 12 weeks. Activin (1 and 5 microg/kg) markedly increased lumbar vertebral bone mineral content and bone mineral density. Activin also increased the mechanical strength of the vertebral body, which was highly correlated to the bone mineral density of the vertebral body. The maximal response in bone mass and strength was observed at 1 microg/kg of activin, which was approximately equal to that induced by PTH at 40 microg/kg. Peripheral quantitative computed tomography revealed that activin enlarged the cross-sectional size of the vertebrae without changing the foramen area, indicating its effects on cortical shells. Histomorphometric analysis of cancellous bone of vertebral body in similar experiment showed that activin (3 microg/kg) increased bone volume and the mineralizing surface, although its effects were less than PTH. The present results indicate that low doses of activin are effective against vertebral bone loss in aged ovx rats.