NaB (sodium butyrate) inhibits cell proliferation and induces differentiation in a variety of tumour cells. In this study, we aimed to determine whether NaB induced differentiation and regulated the expression of the mucosal factor MUC2 through the PTEN/PI3K (phosphoinositide 3-kinase) pathway. BGC823 cells treated with NaB for 24–72 h showed marked inhibition of cell proliferation and alteration in cellular morphology. NaB treatment markedly increased the expression of PTEN and MUC2, but it decreased the expression of PI3K. These effects were enhanced by intervention with PI3K inhibitors and were reduced by intervention with PTEN siRNA. Hence, we conclude that NaB increased PTEN expression, promoted the expression of MUC2 and induced the differentiation of gastric cancer cells through the PTEN/PI3K signalling pathway.