The film, Limitless, portrays the story of a disheveled, unmotivated writer who takes an experimental, wonder pill which allows him to boost his brain power to have laser beam focus, amazing memory, awareness, and problem-solving skills. Meteoric career and financial success soon follow as well as a much better wardrobe and decorating style. During the entire movie, I anxiously thought “He’s gonna run out of the stuff. Then what?”
While a wonder drug as portrayed in the movie has yet to be discovered, drugs which enhance concentration and improve memory, called smart drugs, cognitive enhancers, or neuroenhancers, do exist today. If a person could take a drug as depicted in the movie allowing them to access 100% of their brain, it would most likely put a person into major sensory overload, and they would not even be able to function.
The stimulants Ritalin and Adderall, medically used to treat ADHD, have long been known and used recreationally by students and others wanting to increase their attentiveness, concentration, and wakefulness.
Modafinil, a drug originally prescribed to treat narcolepsy and other sleep disorders, is becoming widely used by college students to study for exams and churn out papers. It has also become popular among shift workers like doctors, nurses, and pilots. The United States Air Force has made the drug available for pilots on long missions. It has even been used in times of combat to keep soldiers awake.
Modafinil works by increasing the brain’s dopamine levels, the same effect as cocaine and methamphetamine. As with these illegal drugs, the body builds a tolerance to Modafinil and requires more and more to achieve the same desired effect.
Studies show that Modafinil does enhance complex planning and problem-solving skills, and other executive functions in healthy people. Ritalin has been shown to improve working memory. In one BBC News article, Professor John Harris, director of the Institute for Science, Ethics, and Innovation at The University of Manchester, says these drugs do give people an edge, but:
They have a similar effect to hard work and coffee. Physical exercise also has the same effect. They are all, to an extent, cognitive enhancers. If you’re not a genius before, you won’t be afterward.”
The term “cosmetic neurology” is being used to refer to the practice of medical drugs being used to boost cognition because it is seen by some as similar to cosmetic surgery. An article I read suggested that neurologists will become “quality of life consultants” tending to the needs of an aging population, parents who want to give their kids an edge, and people who want to get ahead in a fast-paced, competitive, technology-driven culture.
I can certainly see the drug companies encouraging this angle for the profits, and the general population, always looking for an easy way out, creating demand. How would these drugs be any different than all too prevalent antidepressants, I wonder?
While recovering from a brain injury, I took Aricept and Namenda briefly, both drugs used to treat Alzheimer’s. Namenda has also been shown to improve speech in autistic children. I couldn’t tell an improvement in anything with either. For two days, I also took Ritalin, but it messed with my sleep terribly which I did not like at all. Sleep is important to your brain and having had a brain injury, I take my zzzz’s very seriously. Also, I didn’t like the idea of being dependent on any drug, I prefer natural neuroenhancers like exercise, meditation, and diet.
image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tacitrequiem/