The film Limitless released in 2011 and was a modest success when it came out. It went on to gross around $79 million in the US at the box office and was praised for its interesting cinematography and unique concept.
But while the film did okay, its legacy goes beyond most Hollywood hits. More interesting than the money it made, is the fact that it would go on to inspire a great deal of interest in what was previously a much more niche and somewhat underground topic: nootropics.
Nootropics – also known as smart drugs - are real and the film Limitless served to draw a huge amount of attention to the topic. But does the reality live up to the fictional depiction?
In the film Limitless, the protagonist Eddie Mora is offered a pill – NZT 48 - that he is promised will change his life. When he takes it, he experiences a sudden boost in productivity, in creativity and in his general mental prowess. In minutes, he goes from being a washed-up writer who can’t finish the chapter he’s working on, to being a highly productive intellectual. In a matter of weeks and months he completes his entire manuscript, learns several languages, makes a fortune as a day-trader, makes many new influential friends, beds countless women and eventually becomes a politician.
This is a fantasy that many of us can relate to and anyone who feels that they aren’t quite as effective as they would like to be has probably wished at some point for a ‘magic pill’ that can change their fortunes.
This inspired countless viewers to start googling ‘Limitless pill’ and ‘pill that can make me smarter’ and would have led them to the topic of nootropics, known also as ‘smart drugs’. There really are supplements, drugs and medications that can enhance your brain power as it turns out. But how do they stack up to NZT? Can any of them be compared to a ‘real-life limitless pill’?
The nootropic that is perhaps most often compared with the fictional NZT, is something called modafinil. Modafinil began life as a treatment for narcolepsy – the condition that causes people to fall asleep spontaneously and without warning. It is also sometimes prescribed for shift workers and for people who are likely to suffer from jetlag.
It didn’t take long for CEOs and business people to start taking notice of modafinil though. The idea of being able to work longer hours without becoming tired has obvious advantages when it comes to productivity and suddenly a lot more people were being diagnosed with ‘narcolepsy’.
But what some users also discovered was that modafinil could enhance their concentration and their focus, improving their performance on cognitive tests and helping them to work to a higher standard, for longer. The results were so impressive that DARPA and other organizations also reportedly began looking into it. Dave Asprey, the Bulletproof Exec, would even credit the pill with some of his success and has gone on record as saying that most people suffer from a ‘modafinil deficiency’.
So, is this pill really comparable to modafinil? Should you consider taking it? How precisely does it work?
Well, worryingly perhaps, researchers are not 100% sure about how modafinil exerts its effects. What is known, is that it appears to act on orexin – a neurotransmitter (brain chemical) that regulates biological rhythms (including sleep) – and also seems to affect dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter associated with attention and motivation.
In short, modafinil appears to prevent the brain from going into ‘sleep mode’ and the increased alertness triggers a cascade of attention and focus boosting chemicals.
Is it safe? According to early studies the answer appears to be yes, but unfortunately there are no longitudinal (long-term) studies to speak of yet. In other words, we can’t be sure what the effects of using this substance long term might be.
It’s also a little disconcerting that the mechanism of action is not fully understood – and that the only way to get it is to lie to your doctor or to buy it from an illicit and unknown online source.
But that still hasn’t answered the question. The question is: is this a ‘real NZT 48’? Are the effects comparable?
And the disappointing answer is no, not really. Whereas NZT improves every aspect of a person’s brain power, modafinil has pros and cons. It will improve your brain function in some regards while also damaging it in others.
That’s because modafinil increases the production of specific neurotransmitters associated with focus and wakefulness. This means that you will feel less effect from calming neurotransmitters like GABA and serotonin – chemicals that enhance creativity, confidence and good moods. You’re not genuinely more intelligent, you’re just ‘more awake’ and a little bit wired with it.
So how about the other neurotransmitters?
Many of them work in similar ways, only they impact on different neurotransmitters. The highly popular piracetam for example acts on acetylcholine which improves memory and focus but again might be detrimental to activities that benefit from a calm state of mind. The best most of these nootropics can accomplish is akin to a stronger caffeine.
Then you have the other type of nootropic: nootropics that encourage good brain health in the long term, that allegedly help with cognition and that generally make you more healthy. These include things like omega 3 fatty acids, which improve ‘cell membrane permeability’, as well as vitamins and minerals – many of which are used to create neurotransmitters.
Or how about the various different substances that improve energy in the brain – the so-called ‘cognitive metabolic enhancers’? These include things like creatine, CoQ10 or MCT oil.
Instead of trying to get a ‘buzz’ from a smart drug, your aim should simply be to feel like you but on your best day. The best way to do that is just to consume healthy nutrients and beneficial supplements. It’s not ‘sexy’ and it’s nothing like the movie Limitless but if you’re serious about getting a mental boost, it’s smarter to play the ‘long game’.