Previous studies of the effects of the psychomotor stimulant, methylphenidate, have concentrated on vigilance and reaction time tasks. In this study, the effects of methylphenidate on more complex aspects of cognition were studied using tasks from the CANTAB battery and related tests which have been shown to be sensitive to frontal lobe dysfunction. Twenty-eight young healthy men participated in a counterbalanced, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of the effects of methylphenidate. Cognitive assessment included tests of spatial working memory, planning, verbal fluency, attentional set-shifting and sustained attention. Methylphenidate had significant effects on performance of the tests of spatial working memory and planning but not on the attentional and fluency tests. When the drug was taken on the first test session, performance on the spatial tests was enhanced by the drug compared to placebo. However, when the drug was taken second, performance accuracy was impaired whereas response latencies were decreased. These results are consistent with a hypothesis that methylphenidate influences performance in two conflicting ways; enhancing executive aspects of spatial function on novel tasks but impairing previously established performance. This pattern of effects is discussed within the framework of dual, interacting arousal mechanisms.