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Brenda Milner unlocks the mysteries of memory Add to ...

The Transformational Canadians program celebrates 25 living citizens who have made a difference by immeasurably improving the lives of others. Readers were invited to nominate Canadians who fit this description. Over the next several weeks, a panel of six judges will select 25 Transformational Canadians from among the nominees.

Brenda Milner, pioneer of modern neuropsychology, has been selected one of 25 Transformational Canadians.

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After six decades studying human memory, 92-year-old Brenda Milner recalls the details of her long life with sparkling clarity.

Despite her age, there is no sign that Dr. Milner - one of the world's foremost neurological researchers - is considering retirement. In fact, last year she won the Balzan Prize for cognitive neurosciences, a prestigious international award worth $1-million.

Dr. Milner, who is Dorothy J. Killam Professor at McGill University's Montreal Neurological Institute and professor in the department of neurology and neurosurgery, says she was astonished to receive such an honour at her age.

Half the prize money must go toward research involving young scientists - an arrangement that suits the talkative British expat, whose self-named foundation already provides postdoctoral fellowships. "It's very rejuvenating, of course, but challenging also," Dr. Milner says of the award.

Early in her career, Dr. Milner discovered she had a gift for psychology, which appealed to her obsession with why people and animals behave the way they do. "Maybe that's what kept me going," she says. "It's certainly one of the things that keeps me going now - that I'm very curious about the world around me."

No one could accuse Dr. Milner of doing things the easy way. Born in Manchester, she grew up poor after her father died when she was eight. Later, Dr. Milner won a scholarship to the University of Cambridge, earning her degree in experimental psychology in 1939.

Enlisted for military projects during the Second World War, she met her future husband, fellow scientist Peter Milner, while they worked together at the Radar Research Establishment laboratory. When Peter was asked to help launch Canada's atomic energy research program in 1944, the couple got married and sailed for Montreal on a troop ship.

In her new home, the young Dr. Milner taught psychology at the Université de Montréal. She also attended seminars by Donald Hebb, a brilliant McGill psych professor who had the far-sighted idea to combine experimental psychology with the study of the brain. Dr. Milner did her PhD at McGill, where she scrutinized patients who had undergone brain surgery for temporal-lobe epilepsy.

After graduating in 1952, she decided to stay at the neurological institute. She is well known for her work during the 1950s with the American patient H.M., whose radical epilepsy surgery had deprived him of the ability to build new long-term memories - and, apparently, his capacity to learn. By training H.M. to perform a difficult learning task, Dr. Milner demonstrated that the brain has multiple memory systems.

In the clinical world, Dr. Milner's innovative research has opened up many possibilities for the treatment of illnesses such as brain cancer, dementia and epilepsy. Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel, a friend and colleague, credits her with creating the field of cognitive neuroscience.

Dr. Milner politely disagrees. "We shouldn't quite say I created a field, but I certainly played a significant part."

Lately, Dr. Milner has been focusing on how the brain's two hemispheres interact with each other. As for the growing importance of memory as a research topic, she notes that because people are living longer, society is concerned about the prevalence of Alzheimer's disease and other age related troubles.

Dr. Milner says she'd be delighted if anything she finds or has found proves to be clinically useful. But helping others is not the motivation for her research, concedes the companion of the Order of Canada, who holds more than 20 honorary degrees. "I'm doing it out of sheer curiosity and interest in how the brain works, and fascination in behaviour. If it has a spin-off, so much the better."

Although she thinks Ottawa is devoting serious money to scientists through initiatives such as the Canada Research Chairs program, Dr. Milner warns that it's crucial to fund basic science.

"You hear too much, in my opinion, about applying what you're doing into the practical world, that when you put in a research project, you should just show how it's going to spin off into practical things," Dr. Milner says. "And I think there is a danger, particularly in this government maybe, to be wanting to bypass that gruelling basic science part and look for a quick translation."

Brenda Milner on how she began the research that made her famous

Memory was not a fashionable topic when I started working on it. I only started working on it because the patients complained of poor memory. And if a patient complains of memory, you don't say, 'No, no, I'm interested in perception,' and then forget about memory. You study memory or you take a different job.

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