Previous studies have reported considerable plasticity in the rodent corticospinal pathway in response to injury. This includes sprouting of intact axons from the normal pathway into the contralateral spinal cord denervated by an early corticospinal lesion. We carried out the present study to obtain detailed information about the time course, origin, and degree of specificity of corticospinal axons sprouting in response to denervation. Hamsters (Mesocricetus auratus) ranging in age from 5 to 23 days received unilateral lesions of the left medullary pyramidal tract. Two weeks after the lesion, small regions of the right sensorimotor cortex opposite the lesion were injected with the plant lectin Phaseolus vulgaris leucoagglutinin (PHA-L). After a further 2 week survival period, immunohistochemistry was carried out on frozen sections of the fixed brains and spinal cords. Detailed morphological analysis of PHA-L labeled corticospinal axons revealed that sprouting from the intact corticospinal pathway into the contralateral denervated spinal cord occurred only at local spinal levels and not at the pyramidal decussation. Arbors sprouting into the denervated cord frequently arose from corticospinal axons that branched into the normal side of the cord as well. Sprouting was maximal after early lesions (5 days) and declined with lesions at later ages up to 19 days. Sprouting corticospinal axons arborized with the same degree of functional and topographic specificity as previously reported for normal corticospinal arbors (Kuang and Kalil: J. Comp. Neurol. 292:585-598, '90), such that axons arising from somatosensory cortex projected only to the dorsal horn, those from motor cortex innervated only the ventral horn, and normal forelimb and hindlimb topography was preserved. Sprouting fibers also had normal branching patterns. Parallel studies of developing corticospinal arbors showed that sprouting could not be attributed to maintenance or expansion of early bilateral connections. These results suggest that local signals, most likely similar to those governing normal corticospinal development, elicit corticospinal sprouting and determine specificity of axon arbors.