Dr. Brenda Milner has been a pioneer in the field of neuropsychology and in the study of memory and other cognitive functions in humans. She was the first to study the effects of damage to the medial temporal lobe on memory and systematically described the deficits in the most famous patient in cognitive neuroscience, HM. Through a series of landmark studies, Dr. Milner showed that the medial temporal lobe amnestic syndrome is characterized by an inability to acquire new memories while past memories and other cognitive abilities, including language, perception and reasoning are intact. Further, she showed that in patients with this syndrome the ability to learn certain motor skills remained normal. This seminal finding introduced the concept of multiple memory systems within the brain and stimulated an enormous body of research. Her work helped establish the importance of cortico-limbic pathways for cognitive memories and cortico-basal ganglia pathways for skills and procedural memories. These fundamental studies revealed the differences in episodic and procedural memory, concepts that we all take for granted now, and the brain regions that mediate each. This research laid the platform for advances in understanding learning in both normal and functionally impaired humans.
Dr. Milner has made major contributions to the understanding of the role of the frontal lobes in memory processing, in the area of organizing information. 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. Dr. Milner 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 diffuse nature of complex cognitive functions in the brain.
Dr. Milner helped describe the lateralization of function in the human brain and has shown how the representation of language in the cerebral hemispheres can vary in left-handed, right-handed and ambidextrous individuals (see handedness. 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.
Many of these studies were done in preoperative and postoperative neurosurgical patients for whom Dr. Milner developed special cognitive tasks to elucidate the nature of the cognitive impairments from which they suffered. Further, the realization of the potential risk to cognitive function led Dr. Milner to develop the use of sodium amytal to reversibly inactivate parts of the brain to assess and localize the memory functions in patients prior to surgery. This method, pioneered by Dr. Milner, is now widely used throughout the world.
In recent years, Dr. Milner has expanded her research to the study of brain activity in normal subjects using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography. These studies focus on the identification of brain regions associated with spatial memory and language, including the neural substrates of unilingual and bilingual speech processing. Dr Milner leads the research group at the Cognitive Neuroscience Unit of the Montreal Neurological Institute in the exploration of the anatomical basis of cognition. She is currently engaged in cognitive activation studies, exploring the brain regions involved in the performance of specific cognitive tasks. Her work continues to inform this research field characterized by complex and difficult problems that can only be unraveled by subtle and sophisticated means. Her wealth of knowledge and her vast experience with patients and healthy subjects is a valuable resource that she imparts to her students.
The large and varied body of research by Dr. Milner has had, and continues to have, a major impact on cognitive neuroscience and on clinical neuroscience. Dr. Milner’s studies have direct applicability to patient care, particularly for the neurosurgical treatment of patients with brain tumours or epilepsy. Her studies have a profound effect on the presurgical evaluation of patients and on specific surgical techniques that have resulted in world-renowned strategies to minimize the linguistic and cognitive deficits resulting from brain surgery. Her contribution to understanding memory and language function as well as hemispheric lateralization has informed research and potential therapies for debilitating conditions such as Alzheimer's disease and stroke.
Dr. Milner’s distinguished career has been recognized by numerous awards and memberships in the Royal Society (London), the Royal Society of Canada and the National Academy of Sciences (USA). Dr. Milner is actively engaged in research funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and other agencies, and she remains a major contributor to her field. At a recent symposium in her honor, Dr. Eric Kandel credited Dr. Milner with the creative and essential step of merging the fields of neurobiology and psychology to create cognitive neuroscience, a field that has direct and daily patient impact and one that catalyzes a vast array of basic research in the pursuit of understanding human cognition. In 1984 she was made an Officer of the Order of Canada and was promoted to Companion in 2004. Also in 2004, Dr. Milner was awarded the prestigious Neuroscience Award from the United States National Academy of Science.
Dr Milner received her undergraduate degree at the University of Cambridge in 1939, and her Ph.D. degree under Dr. Donald Hebb at McGill University in 1952. She joined Dr. Wilder Penfield at the Montreal Neurological Institute in 1950 and published landmark papers with Penfield and Scoville in 1957 and 1958. She is the Dorothy J. Killam Professor of Psychology, Montreal Neurological Institute and Department of Neurology & Neurosurgery, McGill University.