We’re Getting Close to a Real-Life Smart Drug

A new TV series wonders what life would be like with access to drugs that make normal people superhuman.

09.16.15 5:01 AM ET

The new CBS series Limitless, based on the 2011 blockbuster of the same name starring Bradley Cooper, will premiere on September 22. The story revolves around a mysterious brain-enhancing drug called “NZT,” which when taken as a pill produces instant superhuman mental abilities, like access to memories from every event in one’s life and above genius-level intelligence.

Sounds pretty far out, right?

As implausible as the plot might seem, it actually isn’t pure science fiction. In fact, the use of pharmaceuticals for brain enhancement has become quite a hot area of research in the scientific community, and a recent systematic review published in the journal European Neuropsychopharmacology has found that a drug prescribed for narcolepsy—named Modafinil—can significantly boost a number of mental skills. However, unlike the fictional drug NZT, the study found no harmful side effects or addictive tendencies with short-term Modafinil use.

This places Modafinil in a category with a number of other synthetic compounds commonly known as “cognitive enhancers,” or more provocatively, “smart drugs.”

The most famous cognitive enhancers at present are medications commonly prescribed for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), like Adderall and Ritalin, both of which are powerful stimulants. In addition to increasing concentration and boosting cognition, these drugs produce a euphoric “rush” similar to street amphetamines, making them highly addictive and therefore less than ideal.

Modafinil can similarly enhance attention and memory but without any of the side effects or potential for abuse. This makes it a strong contender for the first smart drug that could eventually be used by healthy individuals without physical concern, guilt, or fear of judgment by society. And although it may not give you the mental superpowers seen in Limitless, the new study from researchers at Oxford and Harvard Medical School show that Modafinil is a step in that direction.

The investigators evaluated 24 studies on Modafinil and cognitive enhancement that took place between 1990 and 2014. Their results showed that in addition to promoting wakefulness, the drug has significant positive effects on learning and memory, decision-making, flexibility, and even creativity. Although it is not exactly clear how Modafinil works in the brain, it is known to increase electrical activity in key areas through boosting levels of certain neurotransmitters, like serotonin and histamine. Additionally, the report found no evidence of side effects or mood changes with use, which differentiates Modafinil from stimulant ADHD drugs.

Although it will likely be a good while before any steps are taken toward legalizing Modafinil for cognitive enhancement purposes in mentally healthy individuals, these findings are a strong indication that it is a foreseeable future event. This could have important consequences not only for those who seek success, but potentially the nation as a whole.

First, legalization of Modafinil could actually help to fight the current widespread illegal stimulant drug use at top-tier college campuses and competitive work environments like those on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley. A 2000 study reported that 16 percent of college-aged students admitted to snorting Ritalin. This suggests that in addition to becoming dependent on the drug for academic purposes, many students transition to recreational use. In fact, Ritalin and Adderall have such strong potential for severe dependence that they have been categorized as Schedule II substances by the DEA—a categorization shared by cocaine and methamphetamine. It has even been documented that larger doses of Ritalin have caused cardiac arrest, leading to the death of at least one student.

Second, legal, side effect-free cognitive enhancers might not just yield more productive students, but a more productive nation overall. Routine use could significantly elevate the performance of computer programmers, scientists, stock traders, CEOs, and lawmakers—thereby improving the U.S. economy through pumping out a higher gross national product. If a foreign country like China decides to supply their citizens with smart drugs like Modafinil for similar reasons, we may actually need to do the same to stay competitive in the global atmosphere.

When considering the legalization of Modafinil for cognitive enhancement purposes, many ethical issues will need to be carefully probed, as is the case when introducing any new drug. For example, an expensive cognitive enhancer could provide an unfair advantage for only those who are able to afford it. It is also very important to note that there have been no reliable investigations of Modafinil’s long-term effects.

Despite these concerns, it is time to open serious discussion on the possibility of legalization of safe, pharmaceutical-based cognitive enhancement for all individuals, as it may be in our best interests as a nation.

So while Modafinil doesn’t exactly give you “limitless” mental abilities like you see in the TV show, it does seem to provide a very significant brain boost for those seeking productivity in a pill.