Ornithine decarboxylase, rate-limiting in polyamine formation, has been found to be necessary for the development of vasogenic edema after cryogenic cerebral injury and is postulated to be of importance in late ischemic brain edema formation. Ornithine decarboxylase activity and accompanying edema was studied after transient cerebral ischemia in Mongolian gerbils. Bilateral carotid artery occlusion was utilized to produce dense forebrain ischemia. After 4 h of reperfusion a significant elevation in ornithine decarboxylase activity was present (72.5 +/- 24.7 vs 8.5 +/- 2 pmoles/mg protein/h, p less than 0.05). Immunohistochemical localization of ornithine decarboxylase indicated its presence in cortical neurons of ischemic gerbils. This was typically located in the perinuclear cytoplasm and extended into proximal dendrites. Nonischemic animals did not contain ornithine decarboxylase immunoreactivity. These studies show the presence and location of ornithine decarboxylase in cerebral tissue subjected to transient ischemia. The increase in this marker of polyamine activity paralleled previous studies in this model of cerebral edema formation and reperfusion deficit in blood flow and evoked potential, suggesting that ornithine decarboxylase is a marker for and may be associated with those late metabolic events leading to progressive functional deterioration after incomplete cerebral ischemia.