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Lloyd I. Sederer, MD

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'Limitless': Would the FDA Approve?

Posted: 04/07/11 09:24 AM ET

One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small
And the one that mother gives you
Don't do anything at all
Go ask Alice
When she's ten feet tall

--From "The White Rabbit" by Jefferson Airplane

And I thought that tune was dated. But not after I saw "Limitless," the film starring Bradley Cooper (Eddie Morra) and the legendary Robert DiNiro (Carl Van Loon), and directed by Neil Burger.

A writer, Eddie, who cannot put two words in a row on a page finds himself unable to deliver on the book he somehow has had an advance on, his beautiful and talented girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) hands him back his apartment keys and says goodbye, and dishes and debris pile up around him in the shambles of his apartment in New York's Chinatown. He has been drinking too much and now has cause to drink more. But chance happens upon him as his ex-wife's brother spots him on the streets of New York, asking if indeed that is his address. Vernon (Johnny Whitworth), a former drug dealer we learn, looking quite dapper and well to do, takes the sad sack Eddie out for a drink, not hard to do, and offers him a pill that will change everything. One pill makes you larger. What the hell, what does Eddie have to lose?

And so begins his adventure, as Vernon supplies him with NZT (why does my mind go to AZT, an antiretroviral medication for HIV/AIDS?), a drug that takes his limited brain functioning -- we use a fraction of our brain's capacity -- and delivers it to its totally unharnessed power. He becomes limitless -- soon making a fortune and is featured in the NYC tabloids as its latest phenom.

It is an ascent meant to inspire envy as he rockets to success on Wall Street and in the trendy bars of NY, where one beautiful woman after another cannot resist him. He woos a billionaire investor, Carl Van Loon, into taking him on as his principal advisor as the tycoon plots the largest (sic) corporate merger known to mortals, ironically involving Libya and oil! Hah, hah!

However, though NZT makes you larger, it then makes you small. The drug begins to destroy the brain and the body through which it streams. The outcome is fatal unless the user continues to employ the drug, and even then it has a track record of debilitating its host. As if that were not enough, Eddie becomes the target of a variety of bad guys, each with his own special and savage evil intent.

Inside and outside his corporal existence, Eddie is in big trouble. The acting is terrific, the film pace brisk, and the story line hurtles forward. It is not looking good for all wrapped up in the NZT and corporate worlds. Soon the body count exceeds many an Arnold Schwarzenegger film, though the causes of death are more varied.

I was on board for all that. It was the resolution that troubled me. Remind you, I am a psychiatrist and public health doctor. Eddie, now looking All-American, is no longer a sketchy writer, a drug addict in withdrawal, or a corporate icon in hand made suits; in fact, he is about to become a Senator (and not a state senator) from New York. Carl Van Loon tries to co-opt him by taking control over Eddie's supply of NZT, so he thinks. But Eddie, smiling brightly, his blue eyes ever more radiant, has him beat. Eddie says he is off the drug, even suggesting he has found ways to make it less toxic. Although off the drug Eddie is, no less the incomparable genius he has become. We get some line about his brain having been altered in ways that make Einstein look like Harpo Marx. Eddie's brain has incorporated the drug's benefits, has no residual adverse effects, and is now the man that stands to rise to President of the United States of America. Obama beware.

I have written about cognitive enhancers ("Neuroenhancers: Paying the Piper" ). In fact, the film mentions the "enhanced Eddy." "Limitless" seems to proffer that we can dodge the damage of drugs, that you can take a neuroenhancer, a pill as potent as can be envisioned, and come out the other end of your own drug deal of sorts as a Senator, if not a President, with your love life restored, your crimes forgotten and your wealth, uh, oh yes, limitless. Go ask Alice, When she's 10 feet tall. Maybe the FDA should be asked to review this film?
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The opinions expressed herein are solely my own as a psychiatrist and public health advocate.


Dr. Sederer receives no support from any pharmaceutical or device company.

Visit Dr. Sederer's website at for questions you want answered, reviews and stories -- www.askdrlloyd.com.