On Sunday, neuroscientist Brenda Milner turns 100, and she plans to celebrate in two ways: the World Cup finals, followed by a party.
“I tipped France from the beginning of the tournament to win, but I must say that Croatia has really impressed me,” she told STAT recently.
In her 100 years of life, our understanding of the nervous system has changed dramatically. For example, only a few decades before Milner was born, some scientists still believed the nervous system was an uninterrupted network throughout the body. Now we know it isn’t, and drugs are created specifically to manipulate the movement of chemicals across the gaps between neurons.
Milner’s work in memory and language processing has contributed mightily to that shift in understanding, and her decades-long career has made her both witness and player to the growth of neuroscience as a field.
Yet as she journeyed from the University of Cambridge to the British defense ministry during World War II to the Montreal Neurological Institute, perhaps no encounter has shaped her career — and the study of human cognition — as meeting a man in the late 1950s known as Patient H.M.
H.M. was a young man who had epilepsy — and until his death in 2008, very few people knew his real name. A few years before Milner met him, surgeons removed parts of his brain, including his hippocampus, where doctors then thought his seizures began.
Milner was the neuroscientist tasked with testing his cognitive function after the operation.
H.M. struggled with everyday tasks — unable to memorize a new home address after his family moved down the street and within half an hour of eating lunch, he had forgotten what he had eaten. But as she reported in a 1957 paper with surgeon Dr. William Beecher Scoville, who performed the operation, H.M.’s “muscle memory” seemed relatively intact; despite having no memory of completing a drawing task, each time he was asked to do it, he improved.
“To see that H.M. 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,” she told an interviewer from the McGill Journal of Medicine in 2006. (When he died two years later, the world learned that H.M. stood for Henry Molaison.)
Through patients like Molaison, Milner showed that the hippocampus had a role in forming memories — a fundamental discovery in neuroscience that has seeded entire fields of research.
“There was this strange idea that memory was a function of the whole brain. The breakthrough was really to show that you couldn’t talk about memory as a great global function of the whole brain. It’s very dependent on particular areas,” she told the New York Times in 2013.
Memory can be fragile; forgetting a person’s name is a universal experience. And the shortcomings of our memories may weigh particularly heavily on people who have lived long lives — even if they aren’t neuroscientists. But when asked if she thought about her research during everyday moments of remembering — or forgetting — Milner said “no.”
Though part of Milner’s legacy as a researcher is unquestionably built on her work with Molaison, her work in neuroscience continued, and later, she diverged from studying memory. She also researched the neuroscience of bilingualism and the differences between the two sides of the human brain.
And her work is still ongoing. Decades after she first arrived, Milner still lives in Montreal and still holds office hours at the MNI, even as she joins the relatively small group of centenarians, and the even smaller group of neuroscientists who have reached their 100th birthday.
She’s in good company. Her role model, Rita Levi-Montalcini, one of the discoverers of nerve growth factor, died at the age of 103 in 2012. “I met her when she was 90,” she wrote. “She was small and lively like me.”