Dementia is typically thought of as a disease caused by the process of aging. Few studies have addressed the premorbid neuropsychological alterations in subjects at risk for the disease - an issue of great importance for the understanding and treatment of degenerative dementias. We used knowledge of the mutation carrier status in a family with inherited dementia to address this issue more efficiently than is possible in the general population, or in cases of inherited dementia where the mutational basis is unknown. Standard neuropsychological tests were used to detect evidence of dysfunction in frontal executive systems in 10 presymptomatic subjects with known mutation carrier status in the highly penetrant condition, frontotemporal dementia and parkinsonism linked to chromosome 17. Presymptomatic carriers demonstrated cognitive dysfunction that was not present in 6 nonmutation-carrying relatives. Strikingly, frontal-executive dysfunction was apparent in some of the youngest mutation carriers many decades prior to the predicted onset of dementia. Thus, this dysfunction may reflect the native cognitive capacities of affected subjects. These results suggest a potentially important neurodevelopmental component to a dementing condition that has been predominantly considered to be a disease of aging; accordingly, this issue warrants study in other families to assess the applicability of these findings.