Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) is the treatment of choice for the sleep apnoea/hypopnoea syndrome (SAHS); it is usually given with the aim of improving daytime cognitive function, mood, and sleepiness. However, its efficacy has not been validated by controlled trials. We have carried out a randomised, placebo-controlled, crossover study of objective daytime sleepiness, symptoms, cognitive function, and mood in a consecutive series of 32 SAHS patients with a median apnoea plus hypopnoea frequency of 28 (range 7-129) per hour slept. Patients were treated with 4 weeks each of CPAP and an oral placebo, which they were told might improve upper airway muscle function during sleep. Assessments on the last day of each treatment included a multiple sleep latency test and tests of symptom scores, mood profiles, and cognitive performance. The patients had significantly less daytime sleepiness on CPAP than during the placebo period (mean sleep latency 7.2 [SE 0.7] vs 6.1 [0.7] min, p = 0.03). There were also improvements with CPAP in symptom ratings (2.1 [0.2] vs 4.3 [0.3], p < 0.001), mood (p < 0.05 for several measures), and cognitive performance, which showed improved vigilance (obstacles hit in Steer Clear "driving" test 76  vs 81 , p < 0.01), mental flexibility (trail-making B time 66  vs 75  s, p < 0.05), and attention (p < 0.05). Objectively monitored CPAP use averaged only 3.4 (0.4) hours per night, but this study provides evidence of improved cognitive performance even at this low level of CPAP compliance.