Summary Daytime tiredness or sleepiness and deficits in cognitive performance are common complaints in sleep disordered patients. Till now there are few studies comparing patients from different diagnostic groups of sleep disorders in the same experimental protocol. We studied the time course of cognitive functions and subjective alertness in a parallel group design with four groups of patients [narcolepsy, untreated or treated obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), or psychophysiological insomnia] and a control group of subjects without sleep complaints. Each group consisted of 10 subjects, matched for age and gender. After a night with polysomnography, subjects were studied for 10 h from 08:00 hours to 18:00 hours at 20 min intervals under standardized environmental conditions. Four psychological tests were applied, (1) a critical flicker fusion (CFF) test to measure optical fusion threshold (alertness); (2) a paper-and-pencil visual line tracking test (selective attention); (3) a visual analog scale (VAS) for tiredness/sleepiness; and (4) the Tiredness Symptoms Scale (TSS), a 14 items check list. Each test session lasted for 8 min, followed by a 12 min pause. The level and time course of cognitive performance and self-rating data were analysed with hierarchical linear mixed effects models. Cognitive tests showed decrements in alertness and selective attention in untreated patients with insomnia, narcolepsy, and sleep apnea. Narcoleptic patients and untreated OSA had a lower CFF threshold than controls, and for narcoleptic patients the time course differed from that of all other groups. In the visual tracking test the performance of all groups of patients was worse compared with normal controls. Self-rated tiredness/sleepiness was significantly more pronounced in the three groups of untreated patients than in control subjects.