This ‘Smart Drug’ Is Straight Out of Limitless — And Scientists Say It Actually Works

Research suggests Modafinil may truly enhance mental ability.

Online reference source defines Modafinil as a “wakefulness-promoting agent.” It has been available by prescription under various brand names since the late 1990s, mainly as a narcolepsy treatment. Until recently, there was nothing special aboutit.

But this week, a study by the journal European Neuropsychopharmacology, covered by The Telegraph, has found evidence Modafinil may do more than keep narcoleptics from conking out at work — it may be a true “smart drug,” akin to the fictional NZT that powers Bradley Cooper in the 2011 film, Limitless. 

Telegraph science editor Sarah Knapton writes that “Oxford University and Harvard Medical School looked at 24 studies into modafainil and have concluded that it really does improve thinking skills, particularly in long complex tasks.” It’s natural universities would take a look at Modafinil, as it’s been a beloved staple in college student medicine cabinets for years now.

Untangling the thought-enhancing effects of Modafinil may be the real deal after so many questionable claims that supplements of all kinds have “smart drug” functions presents some problems. The awesomely-named Dr. Ruairidh Battleday tells The Telegraph that while the drug is “a cognitive enhancer that appears not to have significant detrimental cognitive, emotional, or physical side effects,” a full understanding of how well it works “means that it is time for a wider societal debate on how to integrate and regulate cognitive enhancement.”

The debate is multi-layered: is it fair to use Modafinil purely for human performance? How should physicians handle requests that have nothing to do with a pre-existing medical condition? Should governments review the way they classify the drug?

In the early 2000s I was a night-shift worker in serious need of help not face-planting into my keyboard around 4 in the morning. A physician prescribed Modafinil after it was clear coffee wasn’t doing the trick anymore. The drug completely eliminated issues I’d had with sleepiness near the end of my shift as well as job performance issues that went along with that kind of fatigue. But it also eliminated my ability to get to sleep easily when I went home. It didn’t induce a jittery or altered state, it simply switched off the need for sleep. I let my prescription slack once I went to day shift, because my experience with Modafinil also taught me that I liked sleeping after all, and missed it.

Modafinil definitely didn’t give me the ability to suddenly know sophisticated martial arts moves or speed read an entire library, as NZT does in the Bradley Cooper film and in the TV spin-off of Limitless, which premieres this September. That kind of truly superhuman enhancement is still science fiction.

But hey, if Modafinil is actually a step in that direction after all, I might sign up for night shift again just to see if I was doing it wrong the first time.

Photos by Relativity Media