'Nosy' and Observant, a Neuroscientist Continues Her Memorable Career at 93

Owen Egan

Brenda Milner
November 06, 2011

Psychology students who read about Brenda Milner's seminal work with amnesia patients nearly 60 years ago might not suspect that she is, at 93, still engaged full time in research and teaching. Nor that last week, in New York, she would be picking up a major award, the Pearl Meister Greengard Prize, which honors female researchers who have made extraordinary contributions to the biomedical sciences.

For Ms. Milner, a professor at McGill University's Montreal Neurological Institute whose pioneering work changed forever the way scientists regard memory, the award "came out of the blue," she says.

She is the eighth recipient of the prize since its creation by Paul Greengard, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University, who used his own funds, including his award for winning the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, along with contributions from his university and other donors. The $100,000 annual Greengard prize is named after his mother, who died giving birth to him.

"I set it up because I had seen discrimination firsthand against women in the biomedical field," he says. He commends Ms. Milner for making "some very critical observations about the localization of memory in the brain," as well as advancing acceptance of women in science.

Ms. Milner is also credited by Eric Kandel, Mr. Greengard's fellow Nobel laureate, with creating the field of cognitive neuroscience by merging psychology and neurobiology.

She calls her field "behavioral neuroscience," acknowledging that "the fashionable term is cognitive neuroscience." Though she hadn't thought of herself decades ago as a pioneering sort, her many career discoveries have paralleled the growth of the field, she says. "I arrived at the beginning of something that was to become so enormously popular."

And she has qualities that pushed her work forward: "I'm driven by curiosity. I'm nosy, and I have always been observant."

Born in England, Ms. Milner earned bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Cambridge. She moved to Montreal in 1944 and five years later began studying for a Ph.D. in psychology at McGill.

Her work involved testing memory and brain function in epileptic patients who had had partial lobotomies. That research brought her an invitation in 1955 from the neurosurgeon William Beecher Scoville to visit one of his patients, identified as H.M. The patient, who is among psychology's best-known amnesiacs, was unable to form new memories after parts of his temporal lobes were surgically removed.

Ms. Milner gave H.M. many of the memory tests she used in Montreal, including one that involves drawing an object while looking in a mirror. He would forget almost immediately that he'd done any of the tests. After several days, though, he succeeded in doing the mirror drawing. Because that accomplishment required motor learning, she speculated that his new memory skill depended on a system in the brain. "Did I think it was important? Incredibly so," she says. "It opened up the possibility of multiple memory systems in the brain."

Her theory was met with skepticism for the next 20 years because proofs were generally derived from controlled experiments with rats or other animals. She was working instead with brain-damaged people, relying on her observational powers and curiosity, which some critics considered "a dicey situation," she says.

Some academics thought she was pursuing "a will-o'-the-wisp" and told her she was foolish, she says. The skepticism waned after her findings were borne out in standard animal-based experiments.

"Nowadays you have these wonderful magnetic-resonance machines so we can look at the brain," Ms. Milner says, "but in those days we did not know what was going on in a patient's head."

Over the years, she has embraced the use of the latest research technologies and has trained specialists in her field who have gone on to study and teach all over the world. She regards her students, past and present, as her family.

When Ms. Milner celebrated her 80th birthday, she decided to stop supervising doctoral students, because, she felt, it would be unfair to them if she became ill. But she continues to teach medical students and work with postdocs in research on brain activity. One of her two current projects deals with language processes, and the other with people's memory for the spatial location of objects.

With $1-million from her savings and prize monies, she has set up the Brenda Milner Foundation to support postdocs in neuroscience working at the Montreal institute.

One of her former postdocs, Michael Petrides, is director of the institute's Cognitive Neuroscience Unit. "Brenda is not a person of scientific fads," he says. She concentrates not on the peripheral but on the big research questions, and insists that every job "be done well and with love. She's amazing. Ageless. We joke that we will age, but Brenda will not."

As for slowing down, her main concession to her advanced years is that she has stopped working on Sundays. She used to devote only Saturdays to personal tasks. "Now I find by Friday night, I feel tired. So I take both days off now."