Neuropsychological deficits have been documented in patients with obstructive sleep apnea syndrome (OSAS). Both nocturnal hypoxemia and impairement of daytime vigilance have been suggested as the pathogenesis of these deficits, yet it remains difficult to find good correlations between cognitive deficits and either of these physiological parameters. In the present study, 10 normal controls were compared to 10 moderately and 10 severely apneic patients, all recorded in a sleep laboratory for two consecutive nights, with a vigilance and neuropsychological assessment made during the intervening day. Relative to the controls, moderate and severe OSAS showed differences in many cognitive functions, although the severely affected showed the greater differences. Moreover, severe apneics were also worse than moderate apneics on tests that were found to be normal in the latter group. This suggests a discontinuity in the appearance of neuropsychological deficits as OSAS progresses. Further analyses revealed that reductions in general intellectual measures, as well as in executive and psychomotor tasks were all attributable to the severity of hypoxemia, while other attention and memory deficits were related to vigiance impairment. Therefore, both vigilance impairment and nocturnal hypoxemia may differentially contribute to the cognitive dysfunctions found in OSAS.