Trailblazing scientist still curious about brain at 99


Dr. Brenda Milner, 99, a pioneer in the study of the brain with a lifetime of research, discovered that our memories are located in the hippocampus in the brain. The hippocampus belongs to the limbic system and plays an important role in the consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory and in spatial memory that enables navigation.

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According to the May 15, 2017 issue of The New York Times, Dr. Brenda Milner, now 99, a neuropsychologist from England and Canada, has been credited with discovering “the seat of memory” during her lifetime and where memory is located (in the hippocampus).

It now is considered the foundation of cognitive neuroscience.

Milner tests subjects on how the left and right brain function together as seen in “subtle quirks of human behavior … linking them to brain function.”

When asked by AARP Bulletin whether she ever considers retiring, Milner was quoted in the October 2017 issue as saying, “No. I’m very grateful that I don’t have to. That’s wonderful! Years and years ago, you had to retire at 65. Now, age is not a criterion.”

In a nearly 70-year career, she has been a pioneer in the study of the brain, starting out as a young woman attending Cambridge University and beginning her studies in mathematics. She decided she lacked “spatial ability” (a right-brain function) for math and so switched to experimental psychology. In the meantime, she married and moved to Canada where she still resides.

She advised others to “Play to your strengths — something that challenges you a bit,” in order to keep one’s brain healthy.

Milner told reporter Sari Harrar that to keep her own brain sharp, “I do puzzles. I really am addicted to reading. I read whodunit stories … I read the Guardian [newspaper] and The New Yorker very thoroughly. I get my exercise walking to work, and I love food … everything except sweet things.”

Milner spoke of what motivates her to keep up her research at 99.

“I am very curious. Human quirks attract my interest. If you’re a theoretical person, you can sit and dream up beautiful theories, but my approach is, ‘What would happen if …’ or, ‘Why is this person doing [that] …’ and then, ‘How can I measure it?’ I wouldn’t still be working if I didn’t find it exciting.”

She keeps current with her work and research at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital (MNIH). She sees no reason not to. Neither MNIH nor McGill University in Montreal where she is a professor of psychology have asked her to step down.

At her age, she does make some concessions.

“I come into the office about three days a week or so, that is plenty,” Milner said.

She told Benedict Carey of The New York Times, “And I have some rules. 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” — according to the reporter she looked up at the ceiling and laughed — “well, it’s very difficult if they have to switch to someone else, you know.” 

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