Activation of ornithine decarboxylase (ODC), the initial enzyme in polyamine synthesis, and accumulation of putrescine are thought to mediate pathological processes in the ischemic and traumatized brain. Past studies have separately investigated either ODC or polyamines after head injury. The purpose of the present study was to quantify both ODC activity and polyamines in the rat parietal cortex before and after controlled cortical impact injury. Adult, male rats underwent a right craniectomy and were subjected to a 5 m/sec, 2-mm deformation impact injury. Rats were sacrificed 1, 4, 8, and 24 h postimpact and tissues from the injured (right) and contralateral (left) hemisphere were analyzed for ODC and polyamines. ODC activity was determined by measuring the decarboxylation of [14C]ornithine to putrescine. Putrescine, spermidine, and spermine were determined by high performance liquid chromatography. Cortical impact induced a 10- to 20-fold increase in ODC activity and a 4- to 5-fold increase in putrescine in the ipsilateral cortex. Spermidine and spermine did not significantly increase in the ipsilateral (right) cortex compared to controls (right cortex). In contrast, there was a slight increase in spermidine content in the contralateral (left) cortex after injury. The delayed increase in ODC activity and accumulation of putrescine may mediate pathophysiological changes observed after head injury.