Brenda Milner: The Neuroscientist to Admire


The first prompt asks us to introduce a scientist we admire. There are many neuroscientists we are looking up to, but the most impressive one is by far Brenda Milner. A quick glance at her Wikipedia page is enough to convince you of that.

Image credits: McGill University

Among the things that make her so amazing are the fact that she still conducts her own research and teaches (at McGill University) despite being 104 years old, her PhD adviser was none other than Donald O. Hebb (yes, the plasticity guy), and that she basically founded the field of neuropsychology.

Brenda is the one who studied the now-famous H.M. patient. In an attempt to cure his epilepsy, Henry Molaison underwent a bilateral temporal lobectomy. As a consequence, large parts of his hippocampal regions were removed and he lost the ability to form long-term memories (or at least so it seemed). Brenda Milner (and subsequently her PhD student, Suzanne Corkin) closely worked with H.M., establishing not only the role of the hippocampus in memory formation, but also the existence of different memory types. As Brenda showed in her work, H.M. could still learn to draw a star by looking at it in the mirror. Even though his performance improved, however, he retained no conscious memory of the task. Today we know this is because this type of task requires procedural (i.e. unconscious or implicit memory), which, unlike episodic memory, is independent of the hippocampus.

Beyond that, Brenda has also worked on establishing the role of the frontal lobes in memory, as well as made important contributions towards our understanding of hemispheric lateralization.

Although we haven’t personally met her yet, the academic world abounds with anecdotes about an often overlooked aspect of her work: that of preparing the next generation of scientists. According to these anecdotes, Brenda is an excellent teacher who places great emphasis on providing her students with a well-rounded scientific training. And judging by the success they have had in their careers, we tend to believe these stories contain more than just a grain of truth.

In short, Brenda Milner has been and continues to be an inspiration and a role model for neuroscientists and hopefully non-neuroscientists alike. We admire her not only for her tremendous contributions to the field, but also for her continued tenacity, and we hope to have at least half her energy when we reach her age.

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Further reading

Watkins, K. E., & Klein, D. (2018). Brenda Milner on her 100th birthday: a lifetime of ‘good ideas’. Brain141(8), 2527-2532.

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