Modafinil: is it Really The “Real Life NZT-48” from Limitless?
By Ali Kuoppala | Last reviewed Mon 24 September 2018
Medical Review by Dr. Stefano Pizzo, MD
What is Modafinil: Commonly sold by the brand names Provigil, Modalert, Alertec, and Modvigil – Modafinil is a drug that increases wakefulness and alertness, while also improving memory, learning, and overall cognitive abilities.
It was originally designed for the use of Narcolepsy – a condition where people fall asleep suddenly thorough the day- by a French neurophysiologist; professor Michael Jouvet.
Off-label, Modafinil has gained quite some popularity after being used by entrepreneurs and students as a “smart drug” or nootropic. It’s often claimed to be the best and most potent of the nootropics to promote cognitive functions and alertness, and because of this it has changed the lives and businesses of many users.
Modafinil (2-[(diphenylmethyl)sulfinul]acetamide) is purely synthetic and doesn’t occur naturally in foods or plants.
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Why is Modafinil so Popular These Days
The off-label use for modafinil as a cognitive enhancer dates back tens of years, and it was somewhat of an “underground” secret of entrepreneurs and startup workers for a very long time.
After the film “Limitless“ came out, everything started to change and modafinil became nation-wide news.
In the film, the main character Ed Morra (Bradley Cooper) is a writer who struggles to put the words on paper and as a result, his life spirals down in all the ways imaginable.
Until he meets an old friend, who tells him about a drug called NZT-48, which apparently activates the brain and abolishes the natural limitations of our ability to think.
This transforms Morra to an absolute machine of a writer that finished amazing books in days and eventually transforms into a billionaire investor by learning the tricks of the trade game in record times.
Here’s a clip of Ed taking NZT-48 for the firs time:
So, after the movie was released and a lot of people watched it, many had a question.
Does NZT-48 really exist? Is this Limitless pill actually based off of a real substance?
The author of the original book “The Dark Fields“, which limitless was made to a movie from, says that he did know there were smart drugs out there, but never actually based NZT-48 to any of them, but rather to nootropics and brain enhancers in general. After some time, several media outlets started releasing articles about Silicon Valley startups and entrepreneurs coming forward with their use of Modafinil, and claimed that it was in fact “the closest you can get to NZT-48”.
Regardless, the terms “limitless pill” or “NZT-48” are now somewhat synonymous with modafinil, as several users say it is indeed closest to the drug in the movie you can get in real life.
Will it make you write books in days and become a billionaire investor? Not in the slightest. The movie obviously adds an impressive amount of “Hollywood” to smart drugs – and while modafinil does significantly improve memory, learning, attention, and focus – it will not turn a lazy slob into a world-class business man by itself.
How Does Modafinil Work
Exactly how modafinil works isn’t fully known, but after several years of research, researchers have a pretty good idea of its mechanism of action.
The main thing modafinil achieves, is that it promotes wakefulness by serving as a dopamine reuptake inhibitor in several areas of the brain, resulting in higher extracellular dopamine levels. In layman’s terms, modafinil blocks the transportation of dopamine, which causes more to accumulate in the brain.
Modafinil also influences several neurotransmitter systems of the brain, as it seems to stimulate the excitory “upper-like” neurotransmitters and their receptors (glutamate, catecholamines, acetylcholine, orexin, etc), while also suppressing the activity of sedative “downer-like” neurotransmitters and their receptors (glycine, GABA, galanin, etc).
This increase in the activity of stimulatory brain neurotransmitters, with accompanied decrease in the activity of the sedative ones, results in unrivaled focus and attention with non-existent need for sleep or breaks.
Since modafinil stimulates the release of histamines in the brain, it also increases the plasticity of the brain which is linked to long-term improvements in learning and memory.
Like many nootropics, modafinil has shown to be neuroprotective, as it increases the brain-pool of creatine, inositol, glutamine, aspartate, and antioxidants like gluthatione.
Lastly, modafinil increases brain energy (glucose) usage and production of ATP, which results in quite simply; more efficiently functioning brain.
Modafinil has an extremely complex and so far not fully known mechanism of action that at least promotes extracellular dopamine levels, stimulates the excitory neurotransmitters, downregulates the sedative ones, is neuroprotective, and increases the energy production and usage within the brain.
Modafinil Benefits, Research, and Side Effects
Juding by the impressive array of effects modafinil can have on the brain, one could think that it may deliver some serious cognitive benefits.
This would be correct. Modafinil is perhaps the most effective of the nootropics available (or maybe on par with Adderall, though modafinil also has far less side-effects).
The first “benefit” of modafinil is its ability to induce wakefulness (obviously, as it’s a narcolepsy drug).
The wakefulness promoting effect this drug has can be incredibly potent, as it basically “flips” your brain neurotransmitters into forced awakened state, and when you stimulate the arousing neurotransmitters and simultaneously suppress the sedative ones, sleep simply does not happen.
In one study, the participants were told to try sleeping, but they could not make themselves fall asleep after taking modafinil.
300mg of modafinil has been shown to be as effective as amphetamine in promoting wakefulness.
This could be a good thing sporadically if you really need to grind some cognitive work in a short span of time, but it’s definitely not something anyone should be abusing, since sleep is extremely important for us in the long-term. This effect lasts 10-16 hours, which is as long as it takes for the compound to exit the system.
Other scientifically proven benefits of modafinil include;
- Improvement in reaction time, visual planning, and short-term memory.
- Improved task planning, work enjoyment, and memory & learning functions.
- Improved task performance, attention, and alertness.
Obviously, as modafinil is a prescription drug, there are some side-effects.
Due to working on dopaminergic neurons, there’s definitely some addiction potential and if you combine that with the fact that you can crush a lot of work with it, people who have problems with getting addicted to stuff too easily should probably avoid modafinil altogether.
It may also cause headaches in the following day if you don’t drink enough and supplement with choline (as the drug overconsumes acetylcholine from the brain). Reduced appetite and even some weight loss are also common side effect of these types of stimulatory compounds.
NOTE: in a very very small number of people (2-6 people out of 1-million), there’s genetic potential to trigger Stevens–Johnson syndrome from taking modafinil. However, if you’re prone to that, many basics painkillers are just as risky. Regardless, this stuff is extremely important to know before even thinking about using modafinil.
My Experience with Modafinil
I first heard of modafinil several years ago, in a similar way many people do.
I saw Limitless, got interested on whether there would be something similar to NZT-48, found lots of discussion about modafinil, and eventually started researching the compound and pulling up studies and articles about it.
Since I earn my living by writing and researching health articles – and most of the people raving about modafinil were doing similar cognitive work – I knew modafinil would be something I needed to give a try.
There was bit of a problem though.
I live in Finland, which is extremely tight in terms of prescription drug regulation. There would be no way I could of gotten my hands on any modafinil without being first diagnosed with narcolepsia.
Since I didn’t even consider faking the condition to get a prescription, I had to basically give up the idea of trying modafinil.
Few years went by, I was still very interested in nootropics and used many natural compounds to boost my brain function – some being effective, some not – but I still always had that itch for trying modafinil. Wherever I read about user experiences, everyone seemed to say that all the other compounds weren’t anything compared to the mighty modafinil.
Eventually about six months ago. I got introduced to a company where few American ex-pharma guys were delivering pharmaceutical grade modafinil from India, and after seeing few purity checks and generally positive reviews about them, I decided to give a shot to ordering it.
However, I had to device a plan since I couldn’t just order prescription drug to Finland from India, it would of have been the reddest flag ever in customs.
Instead of ordering it directly, I routed the package through England with a post-forwarding company, which would make it seem like the actual package came from the UK, thus, skipping the Finnish customs.
(yes, this is shady as f*ck, but what did I really have to lose? I’m my own boss already so nobody can fire me, other than that there would of been a possibility of getting a ticket or small hearing with the police, or the product being simply destroyed, but nothing serious, so I took the shot).
Few weeks later, I went to pick up the mail and there it was. An envelope from England, containing three blister packs with 30 tablets of generic modafinil (Modvigil).
After reading hundreds of articles about the wakefulness promoting agent, I knew exactly how to get the most out of it. I made some coffee, added in a bit of coconut oil with plenty of milk and sugar, had a tall glass of orange juice with some choline mixed in, took 200mg of Modvigil, and sat down to start my day of writing.
Initially, I didn’t feel much different…
…but about 30-minutes later I realized I was welcomed by this slightly euphoric feeling of what can only be described as being “in the f*cking zone of all the zones ever zoned”. Instead of my typical 500-1000 words per hour, I was breezing past 2000 words/hour with fully edited text and uploaded images.
After about 4 hours, I snapped out of the zone to realize that my mouth was dry as a desert (apparently this is also a common side effect). I then went to the kitchen to drink a quart of orange juice and back to work, another 3 hours flew by like nothing. I normally can’t bring myself to continuously write for more than few hours, but now words were just pouring into the screen naturally. My mind was sharp and memory worked like a well-greased machinery.
No I didn’t experience any out-of-the-body stuff like Morra does in Limitless, and I’d be lying my teeth out if I said there would be any actual comparability between the fictional NZT-48 and modafinil, but still, I had nearly quadrupled my daily work output with what felt like no effort at all.
Was there any side effects?
Few minor ones, it took a little longer to fall asleep (which is probably because I didn’t take the tablet first thing in the morning), and my neck and traps had becomed fairly tense (possibly from all the sitting and writing, but more so than normally anyway).
I took the 200mg again the next morning, but didn’t get quite as strong effect as I did on the first time or at least it didn’t feel as noticeable. Regardless, I still hammered out at least double the work I would normally do.
The next morning however, I had a jaunting headache. I used to have migraines as a kid and this was something similar. It went by after some aspirin and choline, but ever after that, taking modafinil on consecutive days has always resulted on headaches in the third morning. What I learned from this was to take it sporadically and only when I really think it serves a purpose.
Six months later, I still haven’t used all of those initial 30 tablets (although I did order some more for bad days worth). I think modafinil really works, but I certainly believe it’s nothing to play around with and take everyday. Nowadays I use it very sporadically, no more than 2-3 times a month and only if I know I will be working all day or need to pull all-nighters
Modafinil is a wakefulness promoting prescription drug with extremely potent nootropic effects in terms of attention, focus, memory, learning, and task performance.
Does modafinil make me a better writer? Maybe a little, certainly makes me faster. I also like to relax by playing some PS4 after work and I’ve noticed that modafinil greatly improves my reaction times there (proof). I use it sporadically and would highly recommend against taking it daily (like some people claim is perfectly OK).
Is this “cheating”? According to some people it would be, but I’m not in a race, this isn’t a competition. I’m not a competitive writer, so as long as modafinil keeps delivering, I’m happy to take it.
NOTE: You can learn more about smart drugs and nootropics from Chris Walker’s Smart Drug Crash Course.