Lethargy is characteristic of malnourished populations, but little is known about the biologic mechanism or consequences for cognitive performance. In the current experiment, 24-h activity patterns and performance of an attention task were studied in adolescent female monkeys (18-33 mo of age, n = 10/group) under conditions of moderate dietary zinc deprivation (2 micrograms Zn/g diet) and adequate dietary zinc (50 micrograms Zn/g). There were progressive decreases in daytime activity levels in the zinc-deprived group followed by slowing of growth around the time of the growth spurt. Attention performance was also impaired before the onset of growth retardation. Zinc-deprived monkeys failed to show the shift to later initiation of the rest phase of the diurnal cycle seen in controls in late adolescence. These data support previous findings that activity and attention can be affected during early stages of zinc deprivation before the onset of growth retardation.