Brenda Milner (1918 –)

Trailblazing Neuroscientist

Brenda Milner is considered to be the founder of neuropsychology, a discipline that examines the association between brain structure and psychological behaviour.

Dr. Milner began her career studying experimental psychology at Cambridge University in the late 1930s.  She moved to Canada in 1944 and in 1950 she moved to McGill University, where she began her doctoral studies at the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI).

She served as a medical apprentice to the legendary Dr. Wilder Penfield, who was developing a type of surgical procedure that allowed neurosurgeons to treat only brain regions associated with the epileptic seizures, lessening the need for potentially damaging exploratory procedure. Dr. Milner saw that though these procedures were effective in lessening the number and severity of epileptic episodes, some patients who had undergone this surgery suffered from memory issues.  

Her pioneering work with a patient known as “H.M.” led her to suggest, in 1957, that memory was something that could be traced back to a single neurological region and was not something associated with the entire brain.  Further research led to a landmark conclusion from Dr. Milner in 1962 that there are at least two neurological systems for memory and that different areas of the brain are responsible for different types of memory, such as that associated with learning new motor skills.

Dr. Milner continues to be active more than 50 years after these discoveries and has been called “one of the most important neuroscientists of the 20th century.”  Her work has contributed to many, many other advances, including the understanding of the role of the frontal lobes in memory processing, and the ways in which representation of language in the cerebral hemispheres can vary in left-handed, right-handed and ambidextrous individuals.

She’s been inducted into the National Academy of Sciences (U.S.) and the Royal Societies of London and Canada and is a Companion of the Order of Canada. Also included in Dr. Milner’s lengthy list of honours are the Balzan Prize for Cognitive Neurosciences, the Gairdner Foundation International Award and most recently the prestigious Pearl Meister Greengard Prize.