Brenda Milner, pioneer of cognitive neuroscience

Brenda Milner, PhD’52, DSc’91, began work at the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) in 1950 as a graduate student. Carrying out rigorous tests of neurosurgical patients, she helped to define the functional areas of the brain. By bridging neurology and psychology, Milner pioneered an entirely new scientific discipline – cognitive neuroscience.

Over thirty years, Milner worked with a patient, HM, who had lost the ability to convert short-term memory into long-term after an operation. Through rigorous experiments, Milner discovered that HM could learn and remember particular types of tasks, and that his memories of the past before the operation were seemingly intact. With this revelation, Milner established that people have multiple memory systems, governing different activities like language or motor skills.

Milner, the Dorothy J. Killam Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery at the MNI and McGill University, also conducted much of the early work that established how the different hemispheres of the brains interact. This research has had an enormous impact on understanding cognitive learning, language, sensations and emotions. Her work has received remarkable recognition, including the prestigious Canada Gairdner International Award, the Ralph W. Gerald Prize in Neuroscience, and the Balzan Prize. She is a member of the Royal Society of London, the Royal Society of Canada, and the national Academy of Sciences. In 1984, Milner was made an Officer of the Order of Canada and promoted to Companion in 2004. A year later, she became an Officer of the Ordre national du Québec, and was similarly promoted to Grand Officer in 2009.

Milner ascribes her success and engagement partly to being what she calls “a noticer.”

“The thing that has driven me my whole life is curiosity. I am incredibly curious about the little things I see around me.”