Intermittent calcitriol therapy is commonly used to treat secondary hyperparathyroidism in patients undergoing regular dialysis, but there is little available information about the histologic response of bone to this form of therapy. Accordingly, 14 children and adolescents with biopsy-proven secondary hyperparathyroidism were treated with intermittent oral or intraperitoneal doses of calcitriol for 12 months. Biochemical indices of mineral metabolism including serum intact PTH levels were measured monthly throughout the study, and bone biopsies were repeated at the end of treatment. Before treatment, 11 patients had osteitis fibrosa and three had mild lesions of secondary hyperparathyroidism. Histologic improvement was seen in 12 of 14 patients, and osteitis fibrosa resolved in 10 of 11 cases. Bone formation decreased in all patients during intermittent calcitriol therapy, falling from 861 +/- 380 to 150 +/- 170 microns2/mm2/day, P < 0.001. Bone formation decreased to normal in six patients, but six patients developed adynamic lesions of bone with subnormal bone formation rates. Serum PTH and alkaline phosphatase levels declined in those who developed adynamic bone, but values remained elevated in patients with normal rates of bone formation at follow-up evaluation. Neither the mean dose of calcitriol nor the average dose per kilogram body weight differed in patients with adynamic lesions. Thus, adynamic renal osteodystrophy develops in a substantial number of patients during intermittent calcitriol therapy. Although declining serum PTH and alkaline phosphatase levels suggest the development of the adynamic lesion, bone formation decreases in some patients despite persistently high serum PTH levels. Calcitriol may directly suppress osteoblastic activity in patients with secondary hyperparathyroidism when given in large doses to patients undergoing peritoneal dialysis.