This is Your Brain on Limitless

You may have seen the 2011 thriller film Limitless, starring Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro. But if you haven’t: picture a struggling artist with writers block and a hellish deadline. To make matters worse, the would-be hero is losing his girlfriend and going broke. All seems hopeless.

Salvation comes unexpectedly in the form of a tiny, clear, digestible pill… that unlocks 100% of his brain capacity… unleashing his full potential, and almost killing him in the process.

In the film, the pill is illegal.

In real life, it’s not.

That is, the pill Limitless is rumored to be based on is legal, with a prescription. Unless you’re a military test subject, like the U.S. helicopter and f117 pilots who push the limits of their effectiveness without sleeping for 88 hours, or members of France’s Foreign Legion that’s been known to use the drug on certain covert operations.

Originally intended to combat narcolepsy and other sleep disorders, it turns out that if you have a healthy brain, this drug acts as a cognitive enhancer, earning it the nickname “Viagra for the brain.”

You may be wondering, who besides military test subjects and narcoleptics are using this?

Good question.

It could be the coworker sitting next to you.

Or the Wall Street CEO influencing your investments.

WIRED went so far as to pierce a “secret society” of users, leading the publisher to call it the “entrepreneur’s drug of choice around Silicon Valley”.

ABC news gathered interviewees. Wishing to remain anonymous, they include: the lobbyist, who wakes up at 5 a.m. to complete two full workouts before heading to work; the computer programmer, who writes code for 12 hours at a time, or the brain researcher who can find connections no one else is seeing.

This is where it’s all going…

Prescription sales for this class of “smart drugs” have increased by 73 percent in four years, from $832,687,000 in 2007 to $1,440,160,000 in 2011, according to IMS Health.

But much of the demand goes unrecorded.

In other words, people are getting these drugs on the black market, through online shops.

That brings up the two greatest dangers in all this…

First, if you’re buying on a black market, you really don’t know what you’re getting. It could literally be poison.

And second, the long term effects of the drug are unknown… which may mean that there’s no biological “free lunch” after all…

Having said that, the drug is called Modafinil, or Provigil in the United States. First approved by the FDA in 1998, then delayed for sale in its generic form until April 2012 due to legal reasons, the drug can be manufactured by a select few pharmaceutical companies in exchange for royalty payments.

These include: Actavis (NYSE: ACT), Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd (ADR), and Ranbaxy Laboratories Ltd (RBXY: Natl India).

One thing can be said for sure about this new trend. As we learn more about “smart drugs”, we can work to limit the negative side effects. Indeed, the protagonist in Limitless struggled to “get all the bugs out” before such consequences caught up with his health.

If “smart drugs” do become safe, and are adopted with widespread use, they could unleash a new caliber of efficiency in the digital age.

We are reminded of the impact of the English coffee house in the 17th and 18th centuries. These intellectual hubs played an important role in the development of financial markets and the publishing world.

Back then, it was common to drink beer at breakfast, wine at lunch, and gin during dinner. The water supply was unsafe. With the introduction of coffee, the masses went from consuming depressants all day to stimulants. Innovation and the social cross-pollination of ideas soon flowered. “Ideas could have sex,” in the words of British scientist, and author Matt Ridley. And those ideas would play a vital role in the age of the enlightenment.

Now imagine a decade from now, when people are using “smart drugs”, minimizing negative side effects and boosting positive advantages.

Imagine what that would do for a society.

Josh Grasmick