The cognitive performance of a group of patients with multiple system atrophy (MSA) of striato-nigral predominance was compared with that of age and IQ matched control subjects, using three tests sensitive to frontal lobe dysfunction and a battery sensitive to memory and learning deficits in Parkinson's disease and dementia of the Alzheimer type. The MSA group showed significant deficits in all three of the tests previously shown to be sensitive to frontal lobe dysfunction. Thus, a significant proportion of patients from the MSA group failed an attentional set-shifting test, specifically at the stage when an extra-dimensional shift was required. They were also impaired in a subject-ordered test of spatial working memory. The MSA group showed deficits mostly confined to measures of speed of thinking, rather than accuracy, on the Tower of London task. These deficits were seen in the absence of consistent impairments in language or visual perception. Moreover, the MSA group showed no significant deficits in tests of spatial and pattern recognition previously shown to be sensitive to patients early in the course of probable Alzheimer's disease and only a few patients exhibited impairment on the Warrington Recognition Memory Test. There were impairments on other tests of visual memory and learning relative to matched controls, but these could not easily be related to fundamental deficits of memory or learning. Thus, on a matching-to-sample task the patients were impaired at simultaneous but not delayed matching to sample, whereas difficulties in a pattern-location learning task were more evident at its initial, easier stages. The MSA group showed no consistent evidence of intellectual deterioration as assessed from their performance on subtests of the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS) and the National Adult Reading Test (NART). Consideration of individual cases showed that there was some heterogeneity in the pattern of deficits in the MSA group, with one patient showing no impairment, even in the face of considerable physical disability. The results show a distinctive pattern of cognitive deficits, unlike those previously seen using the same tests in patients with Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, and suggesting a prominent frontal-lobe-like component. The implications for concepts of 'subcortical' dementia and 'fronto-striatal' cognitive dysfunction are considered.