The cellular and molecular pathways of fluoride toxicity in osteoblasts are not very well understood. Therefore, the objective of the present study was to evaluate the effects of sodium fluoride (NaF) on caprine osteoblasts cultured in vitro. Caprine osteoblasts at 2.0 x 10(-4) cells/ml were incubated in vitro with NaF at 0, 10(-8), 10(-7), 10(-6), 10(-5), 10(-4), 5.0 x 10(-4), and 10(-3) M, and then proliferation, differentiation, apoptosis, calcification, and alkaline phosphatase activity were examined. Also, the effect of NaF on osteoblastic cell viability and the molecular events leading to apoptosis were determined. Electron microscopy revealed cytoplasmic and nuclear alterations in the ultrastructure of osteoblasts exposed to various NaF concentrations. A cell-based quantitative evaluation of the MTT assay showed that NaF at concentrations of 10(-8) to 10(-5) M promoted cell proliferation, whereas at 10(-4) to 10(-3) M it suppressed cell proliferation and induced apoptosis. Alkaline phosphatase (ALP) activity and mineralization ability increased in cells treated at 10(-8) to 10(-5) M with sodium versus the controls, but decreased at 5.0 x 10(-4) to 10(-3) M dosage. The highest incidence of early apoptotic cells and late apoptotic cells was reached (3.33% and 2.92%, respectively) under NaF concentration of 10(-4) M. In conclusion, results of this study indicated that NaF modulates osteoblast proliferation and differentiation in a dose-dependent manner and modified osteoblast metabolism bidirectionally, suggesting NaF may play a significant role in osteoblast physiology.