The prefrontal cortex has been suggested as a site of action for the noradrenergic modulation of cognition. In healthy volunteers attentional deficits can be induced by the alpha 2 adrenoceptor agonist clonidine, without impairment of more explicit tests of frontal lobe function. It is therefore possible that the effects of noradrenaline cannot be localized to a specific brain area such as the prefrontal cortex, but instead involve structures in a more widespread attentional network. A 1.5 micrograms/kg dose of clonidine or placebo was administered to 13 healthy male volunteers performing the rapid visual information processing task, which places demands on both sustained attention and working memory. Twelve positron emission tomography measurements of regional cerebral blood flow (rCBF) were collected during performance of this task and also during a rest state. A second experiment in 12 healthy volunteers examined the effects of a 1.3 micrograms/kg dose of clonidine on the rCBF changes associated with performance of a paired associates learning task compared with passive listening to word pairs. Comparison of each of the experimental tasks with its respective control replicated previous findings. A significant drug x task interaction, common to the two studies, was found in the right thalamus. Inspection of the adjusted rCBF values showed that the effect was due to attenuation of thalamic rCBF during the control states rather than to any effects of clonidine during performance of the cognitive tasks, although the effect was stronger in the rapid visual information processing study than in the paired associates learning study. The significant effect of clonidine during the control as opposed to the "cognitive' activation state is consistent with previous findings in animals and humans demonstrating greater effects of clonidine during states of relatively low arousal. The results suggest neuroanatomical dissociation of the noradrenergic modulation of arousal (via the thalamus) and attention.