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Canadian neuroscience pioneer honoured with prestigious U.S. award

Dr. Brenda Milner poses in Montreal, April 28, 2005.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail/Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

Brenda Milner is one of the most important neuroscientists of the 20th century, blazing a trail at McGill University in Montreal at a time when few women held positions of importance in science.

She has received numerous awards for her work and on Thursday, at 93 years old, she'll be honoured with another.

Dr. Milner is the 2011 recipient of the Pearl Meister Greengard Prize, which will be presented at a ceremony at Rockefeller University in New York. The $100,000 U.S. award, created in 2004, recognizes female scientists who have made extraordinary contributions to biomedical science.

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A pioneer in the field of cognitive neuroscience, Dr. Milner was chosen by a panel of 10 jurors, five of whom are Nobel laureates.

She garnered prominence in the 1950s for her work with an American patient identified as H.M. The patient had lost his ability to form long-term memories after surgery to deal with epilepsy.

By working with the patient, Dr. Milner showed his pre-operation memories remained intact and he could learn new tasks. Her findings revolutionized the understanding of memory.

"She was the first to show that certain regions of the brain were involved in short-term memory and other regions were involved in long-term memory," said Rockefeller University professor Paul Greengard, who donated money from his 2000 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine to establish the award.

Dr. Greengard devoted the prize to female researchers because he feels they still face barriers and discrimination in science, which, he said, makes Dr. Milner's achievements in the 1950s all the more remarkable.

"There was practically no women in science at that time," he noted. "It speaks well of McGill that they did give her the opportunity to pursue her work there."

Dr. Milner, who holds more than 20 honorary degrees, continues to work. Her research today focuses on exploring the interaction between the brain's hemispheres.

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