Matt Wall reviews the recent action thriller Limitless.
Limitless starring Bradley Cooper is a decent-enough thriller about a slovenly deadbeat writer whose life is transformed by an encounter with his drug-dealer brother-in-law and a small clear pill. On taking a dose of the mysterious substance he writes a masterpiece of a novel in a single day, learns new languages effortlessly, has perfect recall, heightened perception, and for some unaccountable reason starts dressing like a Cuban pimp. Of course, it’s not long before trouble arrives in the form of the rightful owners of the stolen bag of pills, as well as some mysteriously non-specific (but potentially fatal) physical side effects of the enhancing substance.
Limitless is not a bad little thriller, and includes a few nice touches, particularly some unusual SFX shots zooming through New York City which try to convey the heightened awareness brought on by the drug. Bradley Copper is much more believable as the post-pill mental superman than the deadbeat character we’re first introduced to; the make-up department obviously did their best to make him look unattractive (straggly hair, five-day stubble, a smoking habit!) but it’s just impossible for him to be anything other than a laser-blue-eyed, square-jawed Adonis. Robert De Niro also turns up to do the kind of gruff, phoned-in turn that is all he seems to do these days.
Of more interest than the reasonably by-the-numbers execution of this film though, is the central premise. What if a pill could help you be more perceptive, work harder with greater concentration, and just generally be smarter? It’s an intriguing question; there are times in all our lives when we might wish for a little extra help in this area. Of course, the kind of massive enhancement in mental capacity portrayed in the film is (at the moment) pure fantasy, but when deadlines are due, there’s a big job interview coming up, or you have a presentation at a conference the day after doing a 12-hour flight to get there, wouldn’t it be great if there were something we could take that would give us a little extra boost? Something stronger and more effective than just plain ol’ caffeine, of course.
Well, it turns out there is. And people are already taking these substances – a lot of people. The two biggest drugs that people are currently taking for these purposes are Ritalin (or Methylphenidate) and Modafinil. These so-called nootropics or ‘smart drugs’ are being used and abused by a very large number of people across a wide cross-section of society.
Ritalin is the drug-treatment of choice for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in the under-18s. It is essentially a stimulant, chemically similar to amphetamines (‘speed’), and acts primarily on the brain’s dopamine system. However it has a somewhat paradoxical effect in small doses, acting to calm patients down, improve concentration and alleviate some of the other behavioural problems associated with ADHD. Precise current numbers are hard to come by, but it is certain that numbers of prescriptions of Ritalin rose dramatically during the 1990s and 2000s, (mostly as a result of massively increased diagnoses of ADHD) and that the number of children currently on Ritalin numbers in the millions, worldwide. There are many worthwhile arguments to be had here about the interface of psychology, medicine, public health policy and the pharmacological treatment of behavioural problems in children, however more pertinent to this discussion is that Ritalin is also being heavily used off-prescription by US students. One study found that 16% of students on some college campuses had used Ritalin as a study aid at some point.
The other current favourite drug in this area is Modafinil, which is generally prescribed to treat narcolepsy and other sleep-related disorders. Its primary mechanism of action is currently unknown and seems to be rather complex, acting on a range of neurotransmitter systems. It shares some characteristics with the more traditional stimulants, but also seems to have less potential for abuse and addiction than the ‘standard’ dopamine-enhancing stimulant drugs. An editorial in Nature by Barbara Sahakian and Sharon Morein-Zamir in 2007 brought to wider attention its use by academics; many senior academics described using it to perform better in high-pressures situations, or to counter the effects of jet-lag while travelling. A subsequent informal survey of its readers by Nature revealed that about 20% of respondents said they had used drugs like Modafinil or Ritalin “for non-medical reasons to stimulate their focus, concentration or memory”.
This apparently widespread use of cognitive-enhancing drugs in ‘normal’ healthy individuals obviously raises a whole raft of questions from the medical (is it safe? what are the long-term effects?) to the ethical (should we start drug-testing students before exams? if everyone else is doing it, will I be left behind if I don’t?). The quest for better, more effective drugs which can enhance various aspects of brain function is a worthwhile and important one, and their use for neuropsychological conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and (somewhat more controversially) ADHD is clearly desirable. However, it appears that it’s also difficult to keep these drugs purely in the hands of doctors and patients; and perhaps we shouldn’t even try. If a drug can enhance the mental capacity of anyone, then why shouldn’t anyone use it? We are still a long way off from the vast intellectual leaps that the pharmacologically-assisted character in Limitless makes, but as we learn more about the brain and iteratively produce better ways of stimulating it through drugs (or other technologies) it could be that such enhancement becomes not only a possibility, but an everyday reality for those who wish to (and can afford to) benefit from it.
Matt Wall is a cognitive neuroscientist currently working at UCL, specialising in fMRI, including recently some pharmacological-fMRI. His main web-page is here and he also writes the blog ‘Computing for Psychologists’. Twitter: @m_wall.