Chronic administration of high doses of anticonvulsant drugs frequently produces classic osteomalacia with bone histologic changes characteristic of increased parathyroid hormone (PTH) effect in man. However, several reports have documented defects in calcified tissue metabolism suggestive of an end-organ resistance to PTH after chronic anticonvulsant drug therapy. To examine the direct action of anticonvulsant drugs on bone resorption, we investigated the effects of diphenylhydantoin (phenytoin) (DPH) (100-200 mug/ml) and phenobarbital (10-400 mug/ml) on basal and hormonally mediated resorption 5-day cultures of fetal rat forelimb rudiments. In this system both drugs significantly inhibited basal and PTH-stimulated (45)Ca and [(3)H]hydroxyproline release, as well as 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D(3)-stimulated (45)Ca release. The effects of DPH and phenobarbital were additive, with DPH exhibiting a several-fold more potent inhibitory effect than phenobarbital. Whereas DPH exhibited a striking synergism with the inhibitory effects of human calcitonin (HCT) on PTH-induced resorption, the effect of phenobarbital was merely additive to that of HCT. PTH and PTH plus HCT-induced increases in bone cyclic AMP (cAMP) content were significantly inhibited by DPH but not by phenobarbital. However, in contrast to effects on (45)Ca release, DPH inhibition of cAMP generation was not accentuated in the presence of HCT. It is concluded that: (a) both DPH and phenobarbital can directly inhibit basal and hormonally stimulated bone resorption, with DPH being much more potent in this regard; (b) DPH appears to inhibit bone resorption via a cAMP-independent mechanism and has an additional suppressive effect on PTH-induced cAMP generation; and (c) the synergistic interaction of DPH and HCT in inhibiting (45)Ca release occurs at a site independent of cAMP generation.