Diffuse axonal injury (DAI) plays a major role in the development of cognitive dysfunction, emotional difficulties and behavioral disturbances in patients following closed head injury, even when they have no definite abnormalities on conventional MRI. This study aimed to develop a highly controlled and reproducible model for DAI that simulates post-traumatic cognitive dysfunction in humans. Sprague-Dawley (SD) rats were subjected to impact acceleration head injury, using a pneumatic impact targeted to a steel disc centered onto their skull. The severity of injury was graded as three levels by adjusting the driving pressure at 60, 70 or 80 pounds per square inch. In vivo MRI was obtained 2 days post-injury. Cognitive function was evaluated using the Morris water maze at 1 and 2 weeks post-injury. HE staining and immunohistochemistry were performed to assess neuronal and axonal damages after 2 weeks. MRI demonstrated that this model induced no gross structural modification in the brain. The degree and duration of cognitive dysfunction were dependent on the force of impact. Histological analysis revealed the force-dependent damage of the neurons and microtubule-associated protein 2-positive axons in the neocortex. Hippocampal damage was much less pronounced and was not linked to cognitive dysfunction. This is the first report that precisely evaluates the threshold of impact energy to lead to neocortical damage and cognitive dysfunction in rodents. This model would be suitable for clarifying the complex mechanisms of post-traumatic brain damage and testing novel therapeutic approaches against post-traumatic cognitive dysfunction due to diffuse axonal damage.