Movies as seen by medical students: Lucy review

Luc Besson’s movie Lucy was released in July 2014, however I, being a medical student truthful to the stereotype of never having time, only managed to see it during Christmas break. Below are various scientific inaccuracies that I have noticed in the movie.

The movie is centred on a girl called Lucy who gets accidentally caught in a dark deal. She receives an overdose of a synthetic drug called CPH4. The drug transforms Lucy into an evolved being by enhancing her brain capacity and she takes merciless revenge on her captors.

Besson specified in an interview that the drug name CPH4 is invented ‘but it’s a molecule that the pregnant woman is making after six weeks (…). But it’s totally real and it’s true that the power of this product for a baby is the power of an atomic bomb.’
A brief online research points to the fact that the real name of the molecule is still argued upon: some theorise it is PCAD-2, others think it might be the female hormone oestradiol while others think it is a growth factor. Whatever the name, I am not sure the effect of a compound with power ‘of an atomic bomb’ can positively affect a foetus or an adult brain. The only things that come to my mind are birth defects such as teratomas (tumours containing multiple tissue types), which are definitely not positive nor showcased in the movie.

The movie also mentions that CPH4 is responsible for brain and bone growth. There is no scientific evidence to prove that brain growth correlates with increased performance – brain growth in reality is far less exciting than in the movie, it is simply brain tumours.
As far as bone growth is concerned, it would not have invested Lucy with superpowers either– she would simply have been diagnosed with acromegaly, caused by overproduction of growth hormone.

Another inaccuracy is when Morgan Freeman, in the role of a neuroscientist, claims humans use only 10% of our brains- a widely perpetuated urban legend. We use all of our brain capacity, just not all at once. Although certain brain functions such as consciousness and memory remain largely not understood, brain mapping suggests all brain areas have a function.

Lastly, the movie starts with Lucy only using 1% of her brain capacity, I speculate this plays to narrative stereotypes of ‘the dumb blonde’ or generic passive female roles within the industry, yet by the end of the movie she reaches 100% of it. She becomes more intelligent and her super-human qualities increase as a result of increased brain capacity. As neurosurgeon Henry Marsh points out in his book Do No Harm: ‘One-quarter of the blood pumped every minute by the heart, after all, goes to the brain. Thought is an energy-intensive process’.
Were humans to use 100% of our brain at all times, it would require too much blood and it would use too much glucose. Unluckily for us, this would not result in supernatural powers. Abnormal neuronal excitability is seen clinically and it is called epilepsy; were Lucy to really use 100% of her brain she would have a seizure which would probably develop into fatal status epilepticus- consecutive epileptic fits between which the patient remains unconscious.

Scientific and medical inaccuracies are often present in movies: characters having a heart attack and grabbing their right side of the chest and scrubbed-up surgeons coming in contact with non-sterile equipment that keep operating without scrubbing up again are only two common examples. The difference however is that Lucy has its entire focus around scientifically inaccurate concepts. I was aware it was a Sci-Fi film, however all the inaccuracies combined made me enjoy it less than I could have. On the other hand I suspect that if Lucy was to die of status epilepticus without developing superpowers, or killed her principal enemy when she first had the chance, the movie would not have been positively acclaimed or possibly even made at all. One confidence the film has left me with is that instead of taking CPH4, I would rather keep drinking coffee to enhance my brain capacity.

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