The noradrenergic system has repeatedly been implicated in the mediation of attentional processes. Using a double-blind, placebo-controlled design, the present investigation examines the effects of two doses (1.5 micrograms/kg and 2.5 micrograms/kg) of the alpha 2 adrenoceptor agonist clonidine (CLO) on performance of various computerised tests of attention and learning in healthy, young volunteers. These are compared to the effects produced by two doses (5 mg and 10 mg) of diazepam (DZP) on largely the same set of neuropsychological tests in a comparable set of subjects. Both doses of CLO were found to impair performance of the RVIP test of sustained attention, while the higher dose alone improved visuo-spatial learning. Conversely, the higher dose of DZP produced profound deficits on visuo-spatial learning, and impaired attentional set-shifting. This study suggests a role for the alpha 2 adrenoceptor in selective attention, and for the benzodiazepine receptor in specific cognitive processes mediated by discrete cortical regions.