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Despite considerable interest, the population-based frequency, clinical characteristics and natural history of cognitive impairment in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) are not known.The authors undertook a prospective population-based study of cognitive function in 160 incident Irish ALS patients and 110 matched controls. Home-based visits were conducted to collect demographic and neuropsychological data. Patients were classified using the recently published consensus criteria and by a domain-based classification of both executive and non-executive cognitive processes.13.8% of patients fulfilled the Neary criteria for frontotemporal dementia. In addition, 34.1% of ALS patients without evidence of dementia fulfilled the recently published consensus criteria for cognitive impairment. Non-demented ALS patients had a significantly higher frequency of impairment in language and memory domains compared to healthy controls. These deficits occurred primarily in patients with executive dysfunction. 14% of ALS patients had evidence of cognitive impairment without executive dysfunction, and no cognitive abnormality was detected in almost half the cohort (46.9%).Co-morbid dementia occurs in approximately 14% of patients with a new diagnosis of ALS. Cognitive impairment, predominantly but not exclusively in the form executive dysfunction, is present in more than 40% of ALS patients who have no evidence of dementia. Cognitive impairment in ALS is not a universal feature, and its manifestations may be more heterogeneous than previously recognised.