Acute hypoglycemia in people with type 1 (insulin-dependent) diabetes mellitus causes general impairment in cognitive performance. The effects on more specific cognitive processes are less well defined. Acute hypoglycemia has been shown to impair visual information processing in nondiabetic human subjects and has now been examined in 16 adult subjects with type 1 diabetes. All subjects had normal visual acuity and no diabetic retinopathy, and their median (range) age was 24 (18-47) years with a median (range) duration of type 1 diabetes of 8 (2-18) years and a mean (SD) HbA1c of 8.5 (1.3)%. A hyperinsulinemic glucose clamp technique was used to maintain arterialized blood glucose at 5.0 mmol l(-1), and on separate test days, either euglycemia was continued or hypoglycemia (2.6 mmol l(-1)) was induced. During each condition subjects performed tests of visual processing and cognitive function. Hypoglycemia caused a significant disruption in general cognitive ability as assessed by digit symbol (p <0.001) and trail-making B (p <0.05) tasks. Conventional measures of visual acuity were unaffected by hypoglycemia, but visual information processing deteriorated significantly as indexed by inspection time (p <0.005) and visual change detection (p <0.01). Contrast sensitivity tended to deteriorate during hypoglycemia (p = 0.06). In conclusion, hypoglycemia impairs important aspects of early visual information processing and contrast sensitivity in adults with type 1 diabetes. Further research is needed to evaluate the functional relevance of such changes for everyday tasks that require the intake of visual information at speed and under conditions of low contrast.