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At 102 Years Old, Neuroscientist Brenda Milner Is Still Unlocking The Mysteries of the Brain

Pioneering neuroscientist Brenda Milner, one of the founders of cognitive neuroscience, says that at 102, she's "still nosy."

If you go to the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, you might catch a glimpse of 102-year-old Dr. Brenda Milner — a pioneering neuroscientist who's still breaking new ground in her 70-year long career as a brain researcher! The eminent British-born scientist revolutionized brain science as a newly minted PhD in the 1950s. Today, she is best known for discovering where memory formation occurs in the brain and is widely recognized as one of the founders of cognitive neuroscience. Her research to better understand the inner workings of the human brain continues today, although she says that people often think she must be emerita because of her advanced age. "Well, not at all," she asserts. "I’m still nosy, you know, curious.”

Milner was born in Manchester, England in 1918, and received a bachelor's degree in experimental psychology from Newnham College, Cambridge. She and her husband Peter Milner, an electrical engineer, moved to Canada in 1944 when Peter was invited to help start a nuclear research program there. Milner taught at the Université de Montréal and completed a master's degree in experimental psychology. Then, after hearing a seminar by Donald Olding Hebb at McGill University, also in Montreal, she decided she wanted him to be her doctoral advisor. "He got permission from [neurosurgeon] Wilder Penfield to to send one graduate student to study patients at the Neuro [the Montreal Neurological Institute]," Milner recalled in an interview. "So one day Hebb said to me, 'would you like to go?'" At the Neuro, Milner would meet patients suffering from a variety of lesions and injuries to the brain — including the patient who would change her career and the field of neurology forever.

Milner's most famous discovery stemmed from her observations of an unusual patient, Henry Molaison (who was known as H.M. in published scientific papers), who had undergone surgery to stop severe epileptic seizures but then found himself unable to form new memories. At the time, scientists believed that no single area of the brain was critical to forming memories. Milner upended this scientific consensus when she demonstrated in a landmark 1957 paper that it was the loss of Molaison's hippocampus that prevented him from forming new memories.

Through future research, she was also able to show that H.M.’s motor memory was not affected; if you taught him a new drawing skill, he could perform it, even if he had no memory of learning how. Milner concluded that there were two types of memory: episodic memory,  which involves recalling autobiographical details, and procedural memory, the ability to remember and perform tasks without conscious awareness. She showed that other patients with similar brain injuries to H.M. — ones where the hippocampus was damaged — all had trouble consciously recalling events, but could learn new physical skills.

Milner's later research showed that brains could sometimes reorganize themselves to allow people to regain skills lost after traumatic brain injury and other brain damage, offering hope of rehabilitation for the first time. “I clearly remember to this day my excitement, sitting there with H.M. and watching this beautiful learning curve develop right there in front of me,” she recalls. “I knew very well I was witnessing something important.”

Milner's ongoing research proved that the temporal lobes of the brain have key roles in organizing information and memory, and that what hand a person prefers to use affects what side of the brain they use to process language. Today, her primary research interest is how the hemispheres cooperate in normal memory retrieval and better understanding how visual memory supports more abstract memories, like the meanings of words. In honor of this work, which could help patients with dementia, brain damage, or learning disabilities, a school for students with special needs was named after her in 2019. The L’École Régionale Brenda Milner – Brenda Milner Regional School will serve 90 students, ages 4 to 21, with specialized teachers, psychologists, physical and occupational therapists.

While still active in research today, the centenarian professor has had to make some adjustments reflecting her status as a senior senior researcher: “I will take on postdoctoral students, but not graduate students. Graduate students need to know you’ll be around for five years or so, and well” — she says with a laugh — “well, it’s very difficult if they have to switch to someone else, you know.” But Milner's delighted that she's been able to continue exploring the human brain for over seven decades; she's also been widely recognized for her work with honorary degrees from more than 20 universities. "I'm surprised to find myself at 100 years of age," she said in an 2018 interview, "but I have every intention of continuing for many more birthdays."

Books And Science Kits For Future Brain Scientists

Women in Science Boxed Gift Set (Little People, Big Dreams)

Women in Science Boxed Gift Set (Little People, Big Dreams)

Written by: Isabel Sanchez Vegara
Recommended Age: 5 - 8

The internationally bestselling Little People, BIG DREAMS series pays tribute to groundbreaking women of science in this hardcover gift set! In this collection, kids will meet Ada Lovelace, Amelia Earhart and Marie Curie, three very different women whose contributions to science still resonate today. In each title, stylish illustrations and engaging text encourage kids to learn more about these women — and to dream big about their own futures. For more boxed sets from this series, check out these ones focused on Women in Art, Music Stars, and Inspiring Writers.

Ada Twist, Scientist

Ada Twist, Scientist

Written by: Andrea Beaty
Illustrated by: David Roberts
Recommended Age: 4 - 9

Young Ada is full of boundless curiosity, so when her house fills with a toe-curling smell, she's determined to track down the cause. Not afraid of failure, she embarks on a fact-finding mission and conducts scientific experiments, all in the name of discovery. But, this time, her experiments lead to even more stink and get her into trouble! Fortunately, Ada and her supportive family realize that it's always worth asking "why", even if only leads to more questions. This title by the author of Rosie Revere, Engineer reinforces the importance of perseverance captured in that book, as well as celebrating a love of science and a burning desire to learn. Fans of this title can also check out Ada Twist's Big Project Book for Stellar Scientists.

The Girl Who Thought In Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin

The Girl Who Thought In Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin

Written by: Julia Finley Mosca
Illustrated by: Daniel Rieley
Recommended Age: 5 - 9

Doctors told Temple Grandin's mother that she'd never speak, let alone have a productive life. But her mother refused to believe it: she saw potential in her observant and creative child. As Temple grew, she learned to articulate how her mind worked: her astounding visual memory allowed her to draw whole blueprints from just one tour through a facility, and her empathy with animals helped her design spaces that helped them stay calm. Today, she is a powerful voice in science, advocating for autistic people like herself. This picture book biography told in rhyming text is an inspiring introduction to an important figure in scientific history, and highlights how different workings of the brain can help us learn and discover more than we'd thought possible.

Born Curious: 20 Girls Who Grew Up to Be Awesome Scientists

Born Curious: 20 Girls Who Grew Up to Be Awesome Scientists

Written by: Martha Freeman
Illustrated by: Katy Wu
Recommended Age: 6 - 10

What does it take to change the world? It takes determination, drive... and curiosity! In this exciting anthology from author Martha Freeman and Google Doodler Katy Wu, kids will meet twenty different female scientists from past and present. Each capsule biography explores the backgrounds and life experiences of these diverse women, and highlights how their curiosity drove their work. From a cure for malaria to a map of the ocean floor, from better zoos to a better understanding of our DNA, this book shows how these women have changed the world — and inspires young readers to imagine how they can change it, too!

The Unforgettable Guinevere St. Clair

The Unforgettable Guinevere St. Clair

Written by: Amy Makechnie
Recommended Age: 9 - 13

When Guinevere was four, her mother suffered a traumatic brain injury that left her with no memories after the age of 13, and Gwyn's father is obsessed with finding ways to help her — including moving the whole family to Crow, Iowa, where Vienna grew up. Gwyn isn't crazy about the move and struggles with her mixed feelings towards her mother. But the move provides a fresh start, a few new friends, and an intriguing mystery when a local man disappears. At turns heartfelt and laugh-out-loud funny, this layered story, which includes a realistic depiction of a family struggling with brain injury, speaks about coming home and accepting family as they are.

Women in Science

50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World

Women in Science

50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World

Written by: Rachel Ignotofsky
Recommended Age: 9 and up

This charmingly illustrated and educational book highlights the contributions of fifty notable women to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics from the ancient to the modern world. Full of striking, singular art, this fascinating collection profiles well-known figures like primatologist Jane Goodall, as well as lesser-known pioneers such as Katherine Johnson, the African-American physicist and mathematician who calculated the trajectory of the 1969 Apollo 11 mission to the moon. Women in Science celebrates the achievements of the intrepid women who have paved the way for the next generation of female engineers, biologists, mathematicians, doctors, astronauts, physicists, and more!

Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science – And The World

Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science – And The World

Written by: Rachel Swaby
Recommended Age: 13 and up

Learn the often neglected stories of women in science with these 52 engaging capsule biographies! Spanning centuries of courageous thinkers, author Rachel Swaby celebrates women whose specializations range from biology to physics to engineering, from famous names like Sally Ride and Ada Lovelace to lesser-known women like Stephanie Kwolek and Chien-Shiung Wu. While each individual's biography runs for only a few pages, Swaby has done an impressive job of conveying the essence of each scientist's life and work into the profiles, while her light tone urges readers to learn more about each of these groundbreaking women.

Prognosis: A Memoir of My Brain

Prognosis: A Memoir of My Brain

Written by: Sarah Vallance
Recommended Age: Adults

When Sarah Vallance suffered a traumatic brain injury, she thought she had lost everything: she was told that her cognitive skills and her personality would never be the same. Isolated at home, she struggled with her anger at losing the ability to do things she thought were simple — even reading and writing. But a chance conversation gave her hope that her brain could heal and relearn, and slowly, she was able to build a new life. Vallance provides a deeply personal look at life with TBI and the disabilities that can result from it, with equal parts hope for recovery and a reminder that accepting yourself as you are is the most powerful healing of all.

The Neuroscientist Who Lost Her Mind

My Tale of Madness and Recovery

The Neuroscientist Who Lost Her Mind

My Tale of Madness and Recovery

Recommended Age: Adults

Barbara Lipska was an expert on the neuroscience of mental illness when she was diagnosed with melanoma that had spread to her brain. The illness damaged her frontal lobe and soon dementia- and schizophrenia-like symptoms overwhelmed her. Then, unexpectedly, the immunotherapy she had been prescribed worked, and within a few more months, she was back to normal — but with full memories of her experience of mental illness. In this powerful book, Lipska takes a scientist's look at her ordeal, exploring how mental illness and brain injury affects us and what that looks like both inside and out.

Double-Sided Magnetic Human Body

Double-Sided Magnetic Human Body

Manufacturer: Learning Resources
Recommended Age: 5 and up

She can explore human anatomy with this double-sided magnetic puzzle from Learning Resources! Assemble the 17 pieces into a body over 3 feet high; one side of the pieces features the skeletal system, while the other side depicts the vital organs, major blood vessels, and major muscle groups. A multilingual activity guide includes ideas to help her broaden her understanding of the human body.

Amazon.com.au

You Explore It: Human Body

You Explore It: Human Body

Manufacturer: Smart Lab
Recommended Age: 8 - 12

With this hands-on kit and tour guide from Smart Lab, kids enter the fascinating world of the human body. Open the clear exterior, and use the tweezers and forceps to discover the 9 included organs and the 12 plastic bones and muscles. The included guide answers questions like what keeps your stomach from digesting itself, and what do brains and pudding have in common? This kit is perfect for any budding anatomist.

Amazon.com.au

Wonders of the Brain Science Kit

Wonders of the Brain Science Kit

Manufacturer: Atriot
Recommended Age: 10 and up

Learn all about the human brain with this exciting science kit from Atriot! The Wonders of the Brain Science Kit introduces kids to brain science, psychology, and more, teaching them how the anatomy of the brain is connected to our thoughts and behavior, and exploring the complexity of our consciousness. As you follow along with the 48-page instruction guide, you'll build a lifesized, 3D model of the human brain; learn about the lobes and sensory areas of the cerebral cortex; study how the five senses work — and how illusions can fool them; and much more. With two full-color mini posters and 54 flash cards and activity cards, this kit provides a glimpse into the workings of the mind that you'll never forget!

Amazon.com.au

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