As she turns 100, 'there's no stopping' trailblazing Montreal neuroscientist Brenda Milner

Dr. Brenda Milner is one of the world's most celebrated neuroscientists, and her groundbreaking work in the 1950s helped uncover how human brains retain new memories.

Milner's groundbreaking work uncovered how human brains retain new memories

Brenda Milner attended the symposium at McGill in her honour on Friday in Montreal. (Navneet Pall/CBC)

Brenda Milner has retained an "insatiable curiosity" for life.

Literature, cricket, cheese, The New Yorker magazine, Manchester City's soccer team, and of course, science — the world-renowned, Montreal-based neuroscientist is passionate about it all.

As she turns 100 today, she shows few signs of slowing down.

She's "a tireless, eager researcher who has boundless energy," says Gabriel Leonard, who has worked alongside Milner at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital, known as The Neuro, for 45 years.

"There's no stopping her."

As she celebrates her 100th birthday today, Milner is still working at the McGill Neurological Institute. (McGill)

Worked alongside Wilder Penfield 

Milner shook up the field of neuroscience with her research in the late 1950s on how brain injuries affect the ability to create and retain new memories.

However, before her groundbreaking discovery, she had already lived a lifetime of adventure.

Born Brenda Langford on July 15, 1918, in Manchester in the U.K., she attended Cambridge University at age 18, where she studied experimental psychology.

During the Second World War, she landed a job developing tests for radar operators, which is where she met her future husband, Peter Milner, an electrical engineer turned neuroscientist who died in June, at the age of 99.

There are very few men who could stand up to Brenda.- Gabriel Leonard, longtime colleague

Near the end of the war, Peter Milner got a job at the Université de Montréal, researching atomic energy.

So the couple left England for Montreal, landing on this side of the Atlantic in 1944.

Brenda Milner completed her PhD at McGill University eight years later, in 1952.

She studied patients with epilepsy at the Montreal Neurological Institute, working under famed Montreal neuroscientist and brain surgeon, Wilder Penfield. 

Pinpointing where new memories are created

It was at The Neuro that Milner pinpointed the area of the brain that's pivotal for adding things to long-term memory.

She was introduced to a 29-year-old patient named Henry Molaison, who had had a section of his brain removed to prevent epileptic seizures.

Dr. Brenda Milner

10 years ago
Duration 5:07
CBC reporter Kelly Crowe talks to McGill University's Dr. Brenda Milner, at age 94, still one of Canada's leading neuroscience researchers

The surgery succeeded in stopping the seizures — but it also prevented Molaison, who hailed from Connecticut, from holding on to newly made memories. 

Unsure of the reasons for the change in Molaison's memory retention, Milner carried out a series of psychological tests to figure out what was happening.

In one test, she asked Molaison to draw a star while looking at his hand in a mirror. After a few days, he had learned how to draw the shape, but he had no memory of ever having been asked to draw the star in the first place.

He also never remembered meeting Milner at all.

After undergoing brain surgery, Molaison was unable to hold on to newly made memories. (McGill)

That tipped her off to the fact that long-term memory and motor memory are controlled by different parts of the brain.

Published in 1957, Milner's finding — that the brain's temporal lobe, the section of Molaison's brain that was removed in surgery, is critical in creating new memories — was groundbreaking.

But her work hasn't ended there.

In the decades since that discovery, Milner, who is still a professor in the department of neurology and neurosurgery at McGill, has continued at the forefront of research into how people remember.

Among her many accolades, she won the Gairdner Award for medical research in 2005, also known as a "Baby Nobel," and she was awarded the International Balzan Prize — and the accompanying $1 million to fund her research into cognitive neuroscience — in 2009.

She was named to the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame in 2012, and earlier this year, she received a medal of honour from the Quebec legislature for her professional accomplishments.

'Many more birthdays' to come

Milner has also never shied away from making her mark in a male-dominated field.

"She's always been able to compete in a man's world, and I think she enjoyed it," said Leonard.

"There are very few men who could stand up to Brenda."

While Milner's age has slowed her down somewhat, she still shows up for work at The Neuro, where she serves as an inspiration to her younger colleagues.

Researchers may sometimes get impatient about making a mark on their respective fields, said Lesley Fellows, another one of Milner's colleagues.

But when they look at her distinguished, decades-long career, "you get the sense that you don't need to have a breakthrough every week," Fellows said.

Milner came to Montreal with her husband in 1944. Just over a decade later, she published her groundbreaking paper on human memory. (McGill)

For her centennial celebration, Milner plans on having dinner with about 30 of her closest friends.

Her role model, the late Italian neurobiologist Rita Levi-Montalcini, lived to be 103, she said in a statement ahead of the big day.

"I'm surprised to find myself at 100 years of age," Milner said. "But I have every intention of continuing for many more birthdays."