Considering the nervous system as a unit, it might be expected that diabetic patients with autonomic neuropathy could have a central abnormality expressed as cognitive dysfunction. To determine whether autonomic neuropathy is independently associated with cognitive dysfunction, we studied a cross-section of 20 non-insulin-dependent diabetic patients with autonomic neuropathy (14 males and six females; age (mean) = 60 + or - 1 years); 29 non-insulin-dependent diabetic patients without autonomic neuropathy (14 males and 15 females; age = 59 + or - 1 years) and 34 non-diabetic patients (10 males and 24 females; age = 58 + or - 1 years), matched by age, education and duration of disease. Cognitive function was evaluated by tests of immediate, recent and remote memory: verbal (digit span; word span) and visual (recognition of towers and famous faces). Diabetic patients with autonomic neuropathy scored (median) lower in visual memory tests than diabetic patients without autonomic neuropathy and controls (towers immediate = 5 versus 7 and 6; towers recent = 4 versus 6 and 6; faces = 16 versus 18 and 18; respectively; Kruskal-Wallis; P < 0.05). There was no difference in verbal memory performance (Kruskal-Wallis; P > 0.05). Entering age, education, duration of disease and fasting plasma glucose in a stepwise multiple regression, the performance in these tests remained associated with autonomic neuropathy (towers immediate, P = 0.0054, partial r2 = 0.166; towers recent, P = 0.0076, partial r2 = 0.163). Scores in visual tests correlated negatively with the number of abnormal cardiovascular tests (faces, r = -0.25; towers recent, r = -0.24; Spearman; P < 0.05). Decreased visual cognitive function in non-insulin-dependent diabetic patients is associated with the presence and degree of autonomic neuropathy.