Brenda Milner

Milner at TEDxMcGill in 2011
Brenda Langford

(1918-07-15) July 15, 1918 (age 105)
Manchester, England
Alma materUniversity of Cambridge, McGill University
Known forStudy of memory and cognition; Work with patient H.M.
(m. 1944; died 2018)
Scientific career
InstitutionsMcGill University, Montreal Neurological Institute
ThesisIntellectual effects of temporal-lobe damage in man (1952)
Doctoral advisorDonald Olding Hebb
Doctoral students

Brenda Milner CC GOQ FRS FRSC (née Langford; July 15, 1918) is a British-Canadian neuropsychologist who has contributed extensively to the research literature on various topics in the field of clinical neuropsychology.[1][2] Milner is a professor in the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery at McGill University and a professor of Psychology at the Montreal Neurological Institute.[3] As of 2020, she holds more than 25 honorary degrees and she continued to work in her nineties.[2] Her current work covers many aspects of neuropsychology including her lifelong interest in the involvement of the temporal lobes in episodic memory.[4] She is sometimes referred to as the founder of neuropsychology[5][6] and has been essential in its development. She received the Balzan Prize for Cognitive Neuroscience in 2009, and the Kavli Prize in Neuroscience, together with John O'Keefe, and Marcus E. Raichle, in 2014. She turned 100 in July 2018[7] and at the time was still overseeing the work of researchers.[8]

Early life and education

Brenda Langford (later Milner by marriage) was born on July 15, 1918, in Manchester, England.[9][10] Milner's father Samuel Langford was a musical critic, journalist, and teacher, and her mother (née Leslie Doig) was one of his students.[10] Though she was a daughter to two musically talented parents, she had no interest in music.[10] She was tutored by her father in mathematics and the arts until the age of 8."[10] She attended Withington Girls' School,[5] which led her to attend Newnham College, Cambridge,[9] to study mathematics, having received a scholarship in 1936.[11] However, after realising she was not "perceptive" enough for mathematics, Milner changed her field of study to psychology.[9] In 1939, Milner graduated with a B.A. degree in experimental psychology,[9] which at that time was considered a moral science.[11]

One of her supervisors in the Department of Experimental Psychology, Cambridge was Oliver Zangwill and to him she owed her first interest in human brain function,[9] and the value of studying brain lesions.[12]

After her graduation near the time of World War II Newnham College awarded her a Sarah Smithson Research Studentship, which allowed her to attend Newnham for the following two years.[9] As a result of World War II, the work of the Cambridge Psychological Laboratory, under Bartlett's leadership, was diverted almost overnight to applied research in the selection of aircrew.[9] Milner's position was to devise perceptual tasks for future use in selecting aircrew. More specifically, she was on a team interested in distinguishing fighter pilots from bomber pilots using aptitude tests.[6][9][12] "Later in the war, from 1941 to 1944, she worked in Malvern as an Experimental Officer for the Ministry of Supply, investigating different methods of display and control to be used by radar operators."[5][9]

In 1941 Brenda met her husband, Peter Milner.[13] Both Brenda and her husband were working on radar research. He was an electrical engineer who had also been recruited for the war effort.[13] In 1944, they married and left for Canada where Peter had been invited to work with physicists on atomic research.[9][13] They travelled to Boston on the ship the Queen Elizabeth together with "war brides" who were travelling to the United States to live with their husbands' families during the war. Upon arrival in Canada, she began teaching psychology at the University of Montreal, where she stayed for 7 years.

In 1949, Brenda Milner graduated with a M.A. in experimental psychology in Cambridge.[14] In Montreal, she became a Ph.D. candidate in physiological psychology at McGill University, under the direction of Donald Olding Hebb.[13][15] While working on her Ph.D., Milner and Hebb presented research on their patient P.B. who had undergone a medial temporal lobectomy and had subsequent memory impairment. This garnered the attention of Wilder Penfield. In 1950, Hebb gave Milner an opportunity to study with him at the Montreal Neurological Institute.[9][13] Under the supervision of Penfield, she studied the behaviour of young adult epileptic patients treated with elective focal ablation of brain tissue to treat uncontrolled seizures.[5][15] In 1952, Milner earned her Ph.D. in experimental psychology[16] with a thesis on the cognitive effects of temporal lobe damage in man.[17] Milner has been awarded a large number of honorary degrees including an honorary Sc.D from the University of Cambridge in 2000.[18]

Professional career

In 1954, Milner published an article in the McGill University Psychological Bulletin entitled 'Intellectual Function of the Temporal Lobes'.[19] In this publication she presented data that showed that temporal lobe damage can cause emotional and intellectual changes in humans and lower primates.[20] In this work, Milner reviewed animal studies of neural function and compared it to human neuroscience work. Her publication discouraged many neurosurgeons from completing surgeries on human beings that could negatively impact their lives.[5] "Milner's early work on the temporal lobes was influenced by the results of ablation work with lower primates, and particularly by Mishkin and Pribram's discovery of the role of the inferotemporal neocortex in visual discrimination learning."[15]

Milner was a pioneer in the field of neuropsychology and in the study of memory and other cognitive functions in humankind. She was invited to Hartford to study Henry Molaison, formerly known as patient H.M., who became the most famous patient in cognitive neuroscience. He "had undergone a bilateral temporal lobectomy that included removal of major portions of the hippocampus."[21] She studied the effects of this damage to the medial temporal lobe on memory and systematically described the cognitive deficits exhibited by H.M.

In the early stages of her work with H.M., Milner wanted to completely understand his memory impairments. Dr. Milner showed that the medial temporal lobe amnestic syndrome is characterised by an inability to acquire new memories and an inability to recall established memories from a few years immediately before damage, while memories from the more remote past and other cognitive abilities, including language, perception and reasoning were intact.[22] For example, Milner spent three days with H.M. as he learned a new perceptual-motor task in order to determine what type of learning and memory were intact in him. This task involved reproducing the drawing of a star by looking at it in a mirror.[21] His performance improved over those three days. However, he subsequently retained absolutely no memory of any events that took place during those three days.[21] This led Milner to speculate that there are different types of learning and memory, each dependent on a separate system of the brain .[23] She was able to demonstrate two different memory systems - episodic memory and procedural memory.[24]

Milner discovered from H.M. and other case studies that "bilateral medial temporal-lobe resection in man results in a persistent impairment of recent memory whenever the removal is carried far enough posteriorly to damage portions of the anterior hippocampus and hippocampal gyrus."[25] She showed that in patients with this syndrome the ability to learn certain motor skills remained normal.[25] This finding introduced the concept of multiple memory systems within the brain and stimulated an enormous body of research. Milner stated in an interview with the McGill Journal of Medicine, "To see that HM had learned the task perfectly but with absolutely no awareness that he had done it before was an amazing dissociation. If you want to know what was an exciting moment of my life, that was one."[23]

She has made major contributions to the understanding of the role of the frontal lobes in memory processing, in the area of organizing information. "Dr. Milner's seminal research has provided many landmark discoveries in the study of human memory and the brain's temporal lobes, which play a key role in emotional responses, hearing, memory and speech."[25]

She demonstrated the critical role of the dorsolateral frontal cortex for the temporal organization of memory and her work showed that there is partial separability of the neural circuits subserving recognition memory from those mediating memory for temporal order. She described the inflexibility in problem solving that is now widely recognized as a common consequence of frontal-lobe injury. These refinements in the understanding of memory and exposition of the relevant brain regions revealed the anatomically diffuse nature of complex cognitive functions in the brain.

Milner helped describe the lateralization of function in the human brain and has shown how the neural substrate of language in the cerebral hemispheres can vary in left-handed, right-handed and ambidextrous individuals (see handedness). She used the Wada test to show that for any handedness, the left hemisphere is dominant for language in most people.[26] These studies of the relationship between hand preference and speech lateralization led to an understanding of the effects of early unilateral brain lesions on the pattern of cerebral organization at maturity. Her studies were among the first to demonstrate convincingly that damage to the brain can lead to dramatic functional reorganization.

Using mostly prize money from her numerous awards, Milner donated 1 million dollars to the Montreal Neurological Institute in 2007, after establishing a foundation in her name.[8]

Recent research

Brenda Milner in 2014

In more recent times, Milner has expanded her research to the study of brain activity in normal subjects using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET).[24] These studies focus on the identification of brain regions associated with spatial memory and language, including the neural substrates of monolingual and bilingual speech processing.[24] In another series of PET studies, she has sought to delineate further the role of the right hippocampal region in memory for the spatial location of objects.[27]

Milner continued teaching and researching past her 100th birthday.[28][29][30] She is the Dorothy J. Killam Professor at the Montreal Neurological Institute, and a professor in the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery at McGill University.[24] One of Milner's current collaborators is Denise Klein, an assistant professor in the Neurology/Cognitive Neuroscience unit at McGill.[31] Their research on bilingualism entails investigating the difference in neural pathways used to acquire new and native languages.[31]

In 2018, Milner celebrated her 100th birthday in Montreal with about 30 friends, including fellow researcher Dr. Denise Klein.[28][32] Although she never expected to reach this age, Milner stated that she has "every intention of continuing for many more birthdays."[28] The Montreal Neurological Institute held a symposium in September 2018, celebrating her accomplishments.[33] That same year, Milner participated in a video series, launched by the Montreal Neurological Institute, dedicated to promoting female scientists and researchers.[34][33][35] During the interview, Milner spoke about her early life and gave an overview of her career.[35]

Awards and honours

Milner has received numerous awards for her contributions to neuroscience and psychology including memberships in the Royal Society of London, the Royal Society of Canada and the National Academy of Sciences.[5][24] In total, she has been awarded honorary degrees from more than 20 different universities across Canada, Europe, and the United States.[36]

Early on, Milner was awarded a Sarah Smithson Research Studentship by Newnham College, Cambridge after her graduation, which allowed her to continue her work at Newnham College.[9] In 1984 Milner was made an Officer of the Order of Canada and was promoted to Companion in 2004. In 1987, she was awarded the Ralph W. Gerard Prize in Neuroscience. She was also awarded the National Academy of Sciences Award in the Neurosciences in 2004 for her seminal investigations of the role of the temporal lobes and other brain regions in learning, memory, and language.[37] In 1985, she was made an Officer of the National Order of Quebec and was promoted to Grand Officer in 2009.[15] She was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2007.[38] She was awarded the Balzan Prize for her contributions to Cognitive Neurosciences in a ceremony held in the Swiss Parliament in December 2009.[3]

Milner was awarded the Kavli Prize in Neuroscience in 2014.[5] Other awards and recognition include: Election to the National Academy of Sciences (1976), the Metlife Foundation Award for Medical Research in Alzheimer's Disease (1996), election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2005), the Dan David Prize (2014), the Prix Hommage du 50e anniversaire from the Ordre des psychologues du Québec (2014), induction into the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame (2012), recipient of a medal of honour from the National Assembly of Quebec (2018),[28] Pearl Meister Greengard Prize (2011), the Norman A. Anderson Lifetime Achievement Award (2010), the Goldman-Rakic Prize for Outstanding Achievement in Cognitive Neuroscience by NARSAD (2009), the NSERC Medal of Excellence (2009 and 2010), the Gairdner Foundation International Award (2005), the Prix Wilder-Penfield (Prix du Québec) (1993), and election as a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, and Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.


  1. ^ Birchard, Karen (November 6, 2011) "'Nosy' and Observant, a Neuroscientist Continues Her Memorable Career at 93", Chronicle of Higher Education
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  5. ^ a b c d e f g Perdue, Mitzi (April 15, 2015). "Science Legend Dr. Brenda Milner". Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News (Paper). Vol. 35, no. 8. pp. 6–7.
  6. ^ a b "Pioneering Memory Researcher Brenda Milner To Receive Pearl Meister Greengard Prize". Medical News Today. May 26, 2011. Retrieved May 14, 2013.
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  11. ^ a b "Dr. Brenda Milner - Biography". The Great Canadian Psychology Website. Milner_bio2.html. Worth Publishers. Retrieved June 20, 2016.
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  14. ^ "McGill University Staff". Archived from the original on September 16, 2020.
  15. ^ a b c d "Brenda Milner". Membres de l'Ordre national du Québec (in French). Gouvernement du Québec. Retrieved January 1, 2012.
  16. ^ "Dr. Brenda Milner - Biography". The Great Canadian Psychology Website. Milner_bio5.html. Worth Publishers. Retrieved June 20, 2016.
  17. ^ Milner, Brenda (1952). "Intellectual effects of temporal-lobe damage in man". Digitool.library. Retrieved September 15, 2016.
  18. ^ "Brenda Milner List of Awards and Degrees". Archived from the original on August 3, 2020.
  19. ^ Milner, Brenda (1954). "Intellectual Function of the Temporal Lobes". Psychological Bulletin. 51 (1): 42–62. doi:10.1037/h0054728. PMID 13237374.
  20. ^ Milner, B (1954). "Intellectual function of the temporal lobes". Psychological Bulletin. 51 (1): 42–62. doi:10.1037/h0054728. PMID 13237374.
  21. ^ a b c Turner, M. S. (2010). Tracing Permanent Memories Archived February 12, 2012, at the Wayback Machine. The DANA Foundation.
  22. ^ "Dr Brenda Milner, CC". McGill University. Retrieved May 14, 2013.
  23. ^ a b Xia, C. (2006). "Understanding the human brain: A lifetime of dedicated pursuit. Interview with Dr. Brenda Milner". McGill Journal of Medicine. 9 (2): 165–172. PMC 2323518. PMID 18523614.
  24. ^ a b c d e "Dr. Brenda Milner". Canadians for Health Research. June 2005. Archived from the original on October 8, 2014. Retrieved May 14, 2013.
  25. ^ a b c Scoville, W. B.; Milner, B. (1957). "Loss of Recent Memory After Bilateral Hippocampal Lesions". Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry. 20 (1): 11–21. doi:10.1136/jnnp.20.1.11. PMC 497229. PMID 13406589.
  26. ^ Andrew-Gee, Eric (April 7, 2023). "At 104 years old, memory scientist Brenda Milner seems to remember almost everything". Globe and Mail. Retrieved January 4, 2024. she showed that the left hemisphere is dominant for language in the vast majority of people, regardless of handedness.
  27. ^ Milner, B.; Johnsrude, I.; Crane, J. (1997). "Right medial temporal-lobe contribution to object-location memory". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences. 352 (1360): 1469–1474. Bibcode:1997RSPTB.352.1469M. doi:10.1098/rstb.1997.0133. PMC 1692061. PMID 9368935.
  28. ^ a b c d "As she turns 100, 'there's no stopping' trailblazing Montreal neuroscientist Brenda Milner - CBC News". Retrieved November 30, 2018.
  29. ^ Dreifus, Claudia (May 20, 2013). "Still Charting Memory's Depths". New York Times.
  30. ^ Carey, Benedict (May 15, 2017). "Brenda Milner, Eminent Brain Scientist, Is 'Still Nosy' at 98". New York Times. People think because I'm 98 years old I must be emerita. Well, not at all. I'm still nosy, you know, curious.
  31. ^ a b The Great Canadian Psychologist Website. (2008).
  32. ^ Média, Bell. "Meet the brainy Montrealer who, at 100, is still going to work". Retrieved November 30, 2018.
  33. ^ a b "Montréal enSanté MES V10N3 Été/Summer 2018". Retrieved November 30, 2018.
  34. ^ [1] xxceptional-women, McGill University
  35. ^ a b [2],
  36. ^ "Awards & Honours of Brenda Milner". Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital: About. Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital. Retrieved January 21, 2019.
  37. ^ Nas Award in the Neurosciences. (2012).
  38. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter M" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved July 25, 2014.