Whereas continuous PTH infusion increases bone resorption and bone loss, intermittent PTH treatment stimulates bone formation, in part, via reactivation of quiescent bone surfaces and reducing osteoblast apoptosis. We investigated the possibility that intermittent and continuous PTH treatment also differentially regulates osteogenic and adipocytic lineage commitment of bone marrow stromal progenitor/mesenchymal stem cells (MSC). The MSC were cultured under mildly adipogenic conditions in medium supplemented with dexamethasone, insulin, isobutyl-methylxanthine and troglitazone (DIIT), and treated with 50 nM human PTH(1-34) for either 1 h/day or continuously (PTH replenished every 48 h). After 6 days, cells treated with PTH for 1 h/day retained their normal fibroblastic appearance whereas those treated continuously adopted a polygonal, irregular morphology. After 12-18 days numerous lipid vacuole and oil red O-positive adipocytes had developed in cultures treated with DIIT alone, or with DIIT and continuous PTH. In contrast, adipocyte number was reduced and alkaline phosphatase staining increased in the cultures treated with DIIT and 1 h/day PTH, indicating suppression of adipogenesis and possible promotion of early osteoblastic differentiation. Furthermore, intermittent but not continuous PTH treatment suppressed markers of differentiated adipocytes such as mRNA expression of lipoprotein lipase and PPARgamma as well as glycerol 3-phosphate dehydrogenase activity. All of these effects of intermittent PTH were also produced by a 1 h/day treatment with AH3960 (30 microM), a small molecule, non-peptide agonist of the PTH1 receptor. AH3960, like PTH, activates both the cAMP and calcium signaling pathways. Treatment with the adenylyl cyclase activator forskolin for 1 h/day, mimicked the anti-adipogenic effect of intermittent PTH, whereas pretreatment with the protein kinase-A inhibitor H89 prior to intermittent PTH resulted in almost complete conversion to adipocytes. In contrast, the MAP kinase inhibitor PD 98059 failed to prevent the anti-adipocytic effect of intermittent PTH, suggesting that the inhibitory effect of PTH on adipocyte differentiation is predominantly cAMP-dependent. These results demonstrate a differential effect of PTH1 receptor agonists on the adipocytic commitment and differentiation of adult human bone marrow mesenchymal stem cells. This response may represent an additional mechanism that contributes to the overall bone anabolic action of intermittent PTH.