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OBJECTIVES--To examine cognitive function in chronic fatigue syndrome. METHODS--Twenty patients with chronic fatigue syndrome recruited from primary care and 20 matched normal controls were given CANTAB computerised tests of visuospatial memory, attention, and executive function, and verbal tests of letter and category fluency and word association learning. RESULTS: Patients with chronic fatigue syndrome were impaired, predominantly in the domain of memory but their pattern of performance was unlike that of patients with amnesic syndrome or dementia. They were normal on tests of spatial pattern recognition memory, simultaneous and delayed matching to sample, and pattern-location association learning. They were impaired on tests of spatial span, spatial working memory, and a selective reminding condition of the pattern-location association learning test. An executive test of planning was normal. In an attentional test, eight subjects with chronic fatigue syndrome were unable to learn a response set; the remainder exhibited no impairment in the executive set shifting phase of the test. Patients with chronic fatigue syndrome were also impaired on verbal tests of unrelated word association learning and letter fluency. CONCLUSION--Patients with chronic fatigue syndrome have reduced attentional capacity resulting in impaired performance on effortful tasks requiring planned or self ordered generation of responses from memory.