Basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF) stimulates bone formation in vitro and in vivo. The purpose of this study was to determine changes in gene expression for bone matrix proteins, growth factors, and cytokines associated with the stimulatory effects of bFGF on bone formation in aged ovariectomized (ovx) rats. At 3 months of age, female Sprague-Dawley rats were sham-operated (sham) or ovariectomized (ovx), then maintained untreated for 1 year. At 15 months of age, baseline (BSL) sham and ovx rats were killed. All other rats received daily intravenous injections of bFGF (200 microg/kg) or vehicle (veh) for 14 days. Lumbar vertebrae were processed for quantitative bone histomorphometry or molecular analyses. Ovariectomy decreased vertebral cancellous bone volume by approximately 33% and increased most indices of bone turnover. Treatment of aged ovx rats with bFGF for only 14 days significantly increased cancellous bone volume compared with vehicle treatment of ovx rats, but this variable remained lower than in sham + veh rats. Osteoid volume, osteoblast surface, and osteoid surface were markedly increased, and osteoclast surface was significantly decreased in ovx + bFGF rats compared with sham + veh and ovx + veh rats. Northern analyses revealed that mRNA levels for osteocalcin and type I collagen, relative to 18S RNA, were significantly higher in ovx + bFGF rats than in ovx + veh rats by a factor of >10. RNase protection assays revealed that insulin-like growth factor (IGF-I) mRNA levels, relative to L32 housekeeping gene, were also significantly higher, by nearly a factor of 3, in ovx + bFGF rats than in ovx + veh rats. Treatment of ovx rats with bFGF did not appear to affect message levels for transforming growth factor-beta (TGF-beta), interleukin-6 (IL-6), and interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma). These in vivo results suggest that bFGF treatment upregulates gene expression for IGF-I, which may mediate, at least in part, the increased gene expression for bone matrix proteins and the bone anabolic effects of bFGF in aged ovx rats.