PTH treatment can result in dramatic increases in cancellous bone volume in normal and osteopenic rats. However, this potentially beneficial response is only observed after pulsatile treatment; continuous infusion of PTH leads to hypercalcemia and bone abnormalities. The purpose of these studies was to determine the optimal duration of the PTH pulses. A preliminary study revealed that human PTH-(1-34) (hPTH) is cleared from circulation within 6 h after sc administration of an anabolic dose of the hormone (80 microg/kg). To establish the effects of gradually extending the duration of exposure to hPTH without increasing the daily dose, we programmed implanted Alzet osmotic pumps to deliver the 80 microg/kg x day dose of the hormone during pulses of 1, 2, and 6 h/day, or 40 microg/kg x day continuously. Discontinuous infusion was accomplished by alternate spacing of external tubing with hPTH solution and sesame oil. After 6 days of treatment, we evaluated serum chemistry and bone histomorphometry. As negative and positive controls, groups of rats received pumps that delivered vehicle only and 80 microg/kg x day hPTH by daily sc injection, respectively. Dynamic and static bone histomorphometry revealed that the daily sc injection and 1 h/day infusion dramatically increased osteoblast number and bone formation in the proximal tibial metaphysis, whereas longer infusion resulted in systemic side-effects, including up to a 10% loss in body weight, hypercalcemia, and histological changes in the proximal tibia resembling abnormalities observed in patients with chronic primary hyperparathyroidism, including peritrabecular marrow fibrosis and focal bone resorption. Infusion for as little as 2 h/day resulted in minor weight loss and changes in bone histology that were intermediate between sc and continuous administration. The results demonstrate that the therapeutic interval for hPTH exposure is brief, but that programmed administration of implanted hormone is a feasible alternative to daily injection as a route for administration of the hormone.