Patients with dementia of the Alzheimer type (DAT) received two tests of visual selective attention, together with tests of spatial and visual recognition memory and visuospatial conditional learning previously used to show deficits early in the course of DAT. One set of attentional tests compared visual discrimination learning along intra- and extra-dimensional shifts, using a "total change" design. In the 12 DAT patients capable of attempting the extra-dimensional shift (subgroup 1), performance was equivalent to that of controls. This subgroup was also unimpaired at simple and compound discrimination learning and reversal and an intra-dimensional shift. They were as accurate as controls on a visual search task requiring matching of stimuli on two dimensions with variable numbers of alternatives, but were significantly impaired in the tests of recognition memory and learning. By contrast, the other 13 patients showed marked impairments in the attentional tasks. This subgroup was also significantly worse than subgroup 1 in performance on the visual recognition and conditional learning tasks, and showed greater severity on most of the clinical ratings of dementia. The sparing of attentional shifting in patients early in the course of DAT is contrasted with the impairments previously described in patients with Parkinson's disease with only mild or absent memory loss. The implications of this double dissociation of deficits for understanding the neural bases of the cognitive deficits in these two neurodegenerative diseases are discussed and their significance for the staging of DAT is considered.