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Memory Pioneer Celebrates Her Centenary

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Pioneering British-born neuropsychologist Professor Brenda Milner turned 100 at the weekend. Milner made ground-breaking discoveries in the field of human memory. 

Manchester-born Milner relocated to Canada with her husband in 1944, finishing a PhD in 1952, in the lab of Donald Hebb. She then joined ‘The Neuro’, Montreal’s Neurological Institute, where she continues to work, having pioneered our understanding of multi-system memory in the brain.

Born on July 15, 1918, four months before the end of WW1, Prof. Milner emigrated to Canada in 1944 following undergraduate studies in Psychology at the University of Cambridge, UK. Speaking to Chenjie Xia in 2006, Prof. Milner explained how she began working at McGill University:

“When we arrived in Montreal, I had to get a job - I wouldn’t have been happy not working. So, I got my first job at the University of Montreal, where I taught animal behavior and the experimental psychology of memory for several years.”

When Donald Hebb joined McGill, Milner convinced him to take her on as a PhD student. He then encouraged her to work with the Neurologist Dr. Wilder Penfield as part of her postgraduate studies.       

Working with Penfield’s patients P.B. and F.C., who came to Penfield for neurosurgery to treat epilepsy but exhibited profound memory loss following surgery, Milner used her psychology expertise to probe the reasoning behind this. She was encouraged by Penfield to stay on at The Neuro instead of returning to her teaching role, to continue working with him and his patients. As Milner further explained in 2006:

“Penfield said to me, “You have to come to the Neuro, we need you!” I never thought the great Dr. Penfield would say “we need you.” But he found me a little office close to the neurosurgical offices. And so, I started working at the Neuro and have stayed there ever since.”

Patient H.M. and the discovery of multi-system memory

Prof. Milner’s discovery that different areas of the brain are important for forming different types of memory are in large part thanks to her thorough and methodical long-term studies on patients before and after surgery.

Her most famous subject was Henry Molaison, patient H.M., a 29-year-old Connecticut man who underwent an experimental operation performed by Dr. William Scoville called a medial temporal lobectomy. The surgery involved resectioning portions of his hippocampi to relieve Molaison of his severe epileptic seizures. The surgery was partially successful in that Molaison did not suffer from his seizures as frequently, however it left him unable to add events to his long-term memory.

Prof. Milner spent several weeks travelling from Montreal to Hartford to speak with Molaison and to perform some cognitive behavioral tests. Using a drawing task, Prof. Milner noticed that Henry could learn to draw figures more efficiently over time, even though he had no recollection of practicing the skill. As Prof. Milner told Chenjie Xia, in 2006:

“It was a sensorimotor task, in which you are presented with a double-bordered five-pointed star and your goal is to trace a path that keeps within the two borders. The task would be extremely easy but for the fact that you only see the star and your hand as reflected through a mirror.

Adding: “This is difficult for anyone at the start, but with practice we improve, and so did HM. After three days of practice, his performance was perfect. He had really shown beautiful learning, although he had absolutely no awareness that he had ever done the task before.”

This proved long-term memory and motor memory were separate systems in the brain.

Dr. Brenda Milner turns 100. Montreal Neuro, YouTube.

A prize-winning neuroscientist that isn’t stopping at 100 years of age
Throughout her career Prof. Milner has been awarded prizes for her outstanding contribution to science  including: the Medal of Honor from the Quebec National Assembly in 2018, the Dan David Prize and the Kavli Prize in Neuroscience in 2014, the Pearl Meister Greengard Prize in 2011, the Norman A. Anderson Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010, the International Balzan Foundation Award, the Goldman-Rakic Prize for Outstanding Achievement in Cognitive Neuroscience in 2009 and the Prix Hommage du 50e anniversaire from the Ordre des psychologues de Quebec.

She was inducted into the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame in 2012. And, is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of London and the Royal Society of Canada, and a Companion of the Order of Canada.

At 100 years of age, Prof. Milner still keeps regular office hours at The Neuro. Last week she joined her fellow researchers to watch her beloved English football team take on Colombia at the World Cup. And spent her birthday watching the World Cup final before going to a party in her honor.

As a pioneer of understanding of memory, Prof. Milner will no doubt remember the jubilation and celebration felt the last time England lifted the famous trophy, in 1966. Hopefully England will repeat the feat at the next World Cup. Until then, the field of neuroscience can celebrate the centenarian’s birthday, and look forward to celebrating again next year, as Prof. Milner says:

“Rita Levi-Montalcini (the late Italian neurobiologist) is my role model and she lived to be 103,”

“I’m surprised to find myself at 100 years of age but I have every intention of continuing for many more birthdays.”