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Modafinil: The Real Life NZT-48 and CPH4 Smart Drugs?

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Imagine you could take a pill that allowed you to go from using 10% of your brain to 100%.

How much smarter would you be? If you were using more of your brainpower, maybe you could even develop new abilities like telepathy.

This is the storyline for the movie Lucy, whereby a drug called CPH4 leaks into the stomach of a drug mule (Scarlett Johansson), giving her profound intelligence and special abilities.


This is similar to the storyline of another movie, Limitless, in which a drug called NZT-48 (thallanylzirconio-methyl-tetrahydro-triazatriphenylene) makes the protagonist (Bradley Cooper) excel at everything he does.

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How Modafinil Works

Modafinil works by stimulating areas of the brain associated with the sleep-wake cycle. More specifically, it stimulates all of the “waking” elements of the sleep-wake cycle, forcing us into a waking state for several hours.

It’s rare to find yourself feeling tired and sluggish after an 8-hour workday when taking modafinil. Most people can go more like 10 or 15 hours of working before they even start to feel tired.

Stimulating The Central Nervous System

Modafinil stimulates 3 main neurotransmitters in the brain:

1. Orexin: The Sleep-Wake Cycle

Orexin is a neuropeptide in the brain that carries out the functions of the waking portion of the sleep-wake cycle.

It travels from deep within the brain to other areas including the cerebral cortex.

Once there, it stimulates the area, making us feel alert.

People with dysfunctional orexin systems develop a condition called narcolepsy, which leaves suffers feeling excessive tiredness throughout the day, and may even doze off unexpectedly.

Modafinil is the primary drug used by doctors for treating this condition due to its ability to increase the activity of orexin.

In healthy people, it increases orexin even if the body is naturally limiting the release of the compound (causing sleepiness). We can effectively kickstart our brains to get into an awakened state even if we would normally feel very tired and ready to fall asleep.

2. Histamine: Stimulating The Brain

Histamine has many functions in the body. One of the most important, and certainly the most well-known, is during an allergic reaction. It causes local swelling, runny nose, and itchiness.

In the brain, histamine has an entirely different role, however.

Histamine has a stimulating effect on the brain.

Like orexin, histamine plays an important role in the sleep-wake cycle. When it’s released, it tells the brain to enter a state of arousal and stimulation.

3. Dopamine: The Reward Center

Modafinil also increases dopamine concentrations in the brain.

Dopamine is a versatile neurotransmitter with several vital jobs.

One of the most important is to regulate the reward center in the brain.

This special region is used to develop habits and routines in our daily life. If we do something the brain perceives to be beneficial, the reward center gives us a hit of oxytocin, which makes us feel good.

It programs deeper areas of our brain to want to do this activity again to get another dose of oxytocin.

This system is essential during the process of learning and concentrating on tasks.

People with low dopamine concentrations in the brain (such as people living with ADD or ADHD) often have difficulty concentrating because their brain needs to work extra hard to get the reward center to dose them with oxytocin.

This causes sufferers to become fidgety and easily distracted.

Modafinil is often used to improve concentration, especially in those with ADHD because it increases dopamine concentrations, allowing the reward center to activate more easily.

It allows us to concentrate on something for extended periods of time before seeking stimulation elsewhere.

What to Expect From Modafinil

Now that we know how modafinil works, and why it’s different from the fictional drugs NZT-48 and CPH4, let’s get into what you can expect when taking modafinil.

How Long It Takes To Set In

Modafinil takes about 1–2 hours to start to produce effects. This depends a lot on how much you’ve eaten beforehand and what you’ve eaten.

This is because when taking modafinil (or any drug for that matter) along with food, the food and modafinil compete with each other for absorption.

This means that it’s going to take a little longer before the effects of the drug start to show themselves.

This isn’t a bad thing, and it’s recommended that you take modafinil after a meal because of some of its negative side effects on suppressing appetite.

What Modafinil Feels Like

Modafinil won’t make you feel smarter like the drugs in the movies do, but it will make you feel more awake, and a LOT more focused on the task at hand.

It’s these effects that make modafinil so useful for students, creatives, and business professionals working on tough and mentally tasking activities.

People often report feeling like they can completely “tune in” to what they’re working on.

Many people also report feeling as though their memory retention is more efficient after taking modafinil. Instead of having to remind themselves of the answer on the back of a cue car, for example, they tend to remember it the first time they write it down.

Learn more about what to expect when taking modafinil.

The Timeline of Modafinil

The amount of time modafinil remains active for can vary a lot from person to person, but will generally last about 16–22 hours total. Most people find that the bulk of the effects stop around the 16-hour mark.


The drug starts to take effect between 1 and 2 hours after taking it and peaks around 2 hours after that (the 4-hour mark).

It usually remains at its highest point for another 2 hours before gradually dropping off over the next 12–14 hours.

Are There Any Side Effects?

In the movie Limitless, the drug started to cause shifts in reality, severe headaches and illness when not actively on the drug. Past users of the drug had been reported to have died once their supply of the drug ran out.

In Lucy, CHP4 caused the main character to eventually become omnipotent.


Johansson transcended time and space and was able to view the origins of life on earth, the formation of the earth and the cosmos, and witnessed the big bang.

At the end of the movie, she disappeared completely. When asked where she was, they answered ominously with “I’m everywhere.”

These are some pretty strange and serious side effects to expect from the medication.

Here in the real world, the side effects are much tamer.

Modafinil can produce some side effects. However, the vast majority of them aren’t severe.

The Most Common Side Effects of Modafinil Include:

  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Appetite suppression
  • Muscle tension
  • Anxiety

In some rare cases, a severe allergic skin reaction can occur called Steven Johnson Syndrome.

Learn more about the side effects of modafinil and how to prevent/reverse them.

Final Thoughts

Although the drugs from the movies Limitless (NZT-48) and Lucy (CPH4) are intriguing and provide the substance for a good movie, they aren’t real.

The closest thing we have to these fictional drugs is modafinil.

Instead of giving us superintelligence, modafinil gives us a boost in productivity and concentration. It’s beneficial for people who need to get a lot of work done in a single session, such as students cramming for an exam, creatives trying to produce content, and business professionals working on a project or presentation.


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