Neuronal death due to excessive activation of N-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA) receptors is a hallmark of neurodegenerative diseases. The polyamines: putrescine, spermine, and spermidine, bind to specific sites on the NMDA receptor and promote its activation, but their role in NMDA-induced neuronal death is ill defined. In this study, we characterized the role of polyamines in excitotoxic death of retinal ganglion cells (RGCs), a population of central neurons susceptible to NMDA-induced damage. Our data show that endogenous arginase I, the rate limiting enzyme for polyamine biosynthesis, is expressed in the intact, adult retina. Intraocular injection of NMDA visibly increased arginase I expression in Müller cells, the predominant glial cell-type in the mammalian retina. Inhibition of polyamine synthesis using di-fluoro-methyl-ornithine (DFMO) was markedly neuroprotective, while injection of exogenous polyamines in conjunction with NMDA exacerbated RGC death. Blockade of the polyamine binding sites on NMDA receptors using the non-competitive antagonist ifenprodil was neuroprotective, suggesting that polyamines contribute to excitotoxic death, at least partly, by binding to NMDA receptors. Importantly, we also demonstrate that NMDA leads to activation of both the Erk1/2 and PI3 K/Akt pathways, but only the PI3 K/Akt kinase was required for di-fluoro-methyl-ornithine-induced RGC survival. In summary, our study reveals that polyamines modulate neuronal death in the retina via different mechanisms that potentiate NMDA-triggered excitotoxicity.