Prof Brenda Milner, the Grande Dame of cognitive neuroscience, neuropsychology, and memory research turned 105 in mid-July. MEMORehab co-founder (and Prof Milner’s former PhD student), Clin A/Prof Laurie Miller was there to help her celebrate!
Prof Milner’s best-known work centred on exploration of memory function in the patient, “H.M.” After a brain operation his early 20’s, in which he had both his hippocampi removed in an effort to control drug-resistant epilepsy, this man remained unable to recall anything that happened to him for the rest of his life. Hence, the incredible importance of the hippocampus to the ability to store new episodic memories became obvious. Prof Milner pointed out, however, that H.M. continued to be able describe memories from his previous life. Also, he was well able to converse, indicating that he had not lost memory for words learned previously. Furthermore, Prof Milner discovered that H.M. exhibited improvement on tasks involving complex hand-eye coordination, so called “procedural” or motor learning” tasks. On these, he made fewer and fewer errors over several days of practice (i.e., showing learning), in spite of not remembering having done the task before or having met Prof Milner on many previous occasions! These studies and others by Prof Milner and her team have elucidated the role of the hippocampus in the encoding of new declarative memories, and also helped us understand some of the divisions in memory: anterograde versus retrograde; episodic versus semantic; declarative vs procedural; verbal vs non-verbal, with different brain structures contributing to these different processes.
Today, Prof Milner lives in the same apartment she moved into in 1959. Her abode is only a few blocks from the Montreal Neurological Institute. She used to walk up the hill in all types of Canadian weather to this, her workplace, every day until well into her 90s. Attributing her longevity to “good genes” as well as maintaining a passion for her work, Prof Milner remains socially active, enjoys doing the New York Times crossword puzzle and continues to win prestigious awards (including, most recently, induction into the Canadian Walk of Fame in Toronto).
When she was Prof Milner’s student in the 1980s, Laurie got to travel to Boston to meet H.M., who by then was almost as famous as the scientist who documented his memory patterns.