Dr. Brenda Milner

McGill University
Researcher of the month: 
Jun 2005

Dr. Brenda Milner is recognized as one of the founders of cognitive neuroscience. She began her career in England, gaining an undergraduate and graduate degree from the University of Cambridge. In the 1950's Dr. Milner began her doctoral research in the Department of Psychology at McGill University; she later moved to the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) to collaborate with eminent neurosurgeon Dr. Wilder Penfield. Dr. Milner's empirical work with patients helped Dr. Penfield define functional areas of the brain-vital information for a neurosurgeon.

Over several decades, Dr. Milner forged a close professional relationship with a post-surgical patient-she made detailed studies, identifying multiple memory systems by teasing out the patient's cognitive capabilities and deficits. While the patient was unable to remember recent events, he was able to learn new motor tasks. In all their years of association, the patient neither remembered Dr. Milner from one meeting to another nor that he had learnt a new task under her direction. In a series of subtle experiments, Dr. Milner was able to demonstrate two different memory systems- episodic and procedural memory. It was another 25 years before other scientists developed experimental models of animal behaviour to further study these systems.

Currently, Dr. Milner uses non-invasive brain imaging technology, such as positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging, to study the functional specialization in the right and left brain hemispheres; she is particularly interested in the role of the right hemisphere in remembering the location of objects. Dr. Milner also uses these techniques to identify the brain regions involved in language processing in both unilingual and bilingual volunteer control subjects.

Dr. Milner is Dorothy J. Killam Professor at the MNI, and a Professor in the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery at McGill University. Her work has been widely recognized by her scientific peers through numerous awards. In 1997 she was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame as a fellow of the Royal Society of London and the Royal Society of Canada. In 1993 Dr. Milner received the Wilder Penfield Prize for Biomedical Research from the Province of Quebec. Last year Dr. Milner was promoted to Companion of the Order of Canada-the highest honour of the Order. Dr. Milner was recently named a 2005 winner of the prestigious Gairdner Award for her pioneering research in memory.

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