To examine the association between birth weight and cognitive function in the normal population. A longitudinal, population based, birth cohort study. 3900 males and females born in 1946. Cognitive function from childhood to middle life (measured at ages 8, 11, 15, 26, and 43 years). Birth weight was significantly and positively associated with cognitive ability at age 8 (with an estimated standard deviation score of 0.44 (95% confidence interval 0.28 to 0.59)) between the lowest and highest birthweight categories after sex, father's social class, mother's education, and birth order were controlled for. This association was evident across the normal birthweight range (>2.5 kg) and so was not accounted for exclusively by low birth weight. The association was also observed at ages 11, 15, and 26, and weakly at age 43, although these associations were dependent on the association at age 8. Birth weight was also associated with education, with those of higher birth weight more likely to have achieved higher qualifications, and this effect was accounted for partly by cognitive function at age 8. Birth weight was associated with cognitive ability at age 8 in the general population, and in the normal birthweight range. The effect at this age largely explains associations between birth weight and cognitive function at subsequent ages. Similarly, the association between birth weight and education was accounted for partly by earlier cognitive scores.