‘Play to your Strengths—Something that challenges you a bit’

(Pioneering Brain Scientist Brenda Milner, 99, whose groundbreaking research helped unlock the mysteries of memory—and who’s still actively exploring links between brain function and behavior spoke with Brenda Milner for AARP Bulletin)

You’re a preeminent neuroscientist, and a professor at Canada’s prestigious McGill University.  At age 99, what motivates you to keep up your research at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital?

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.  

Are you curious in real life, too?

Yes. I’m a good “noticer”—of behavior as much as the kind of furniture people have!

In the 1950s, you made a revolutionary discovery—that memories are formed in a brain area called the hippocampus, which is now getting lots of attention for its role in memory loss and dementia. Has brain research gotten easier?          Nowadays, everyone has functional magnetic resonance imaging.  Anybody with access to a medical school can get a good look at the patients’ brain while they’re alive and young, but it wasn’t like that (then). Psychologists were studying patients who were much older and beginning to show memory impairment.  Then they had to wait for their patients to die.

But you were different?

I was privileged in having access to the kinds of patients I had.  They were young adults of normal intelligence, in the prime of their lives.  We were able to test them before and after surgery for epilepsy.

Was it frustrating waiting for your concept to be accepted?

Oh no, no. It was so exciting working with these patients and satisfying one’s curiosity. But it was a bit annoying occasionally.

What led a young Englishwoman to brain science in the 1930’s?

I started at Cambridge University in mathematics and decided that I wasn’t going to be a great mathematician because I don’t have enough spatial ability.  I switched to experimental psychology, got married and came to Canada for one year—and I’m still here.  I was very lucky in being at the Neurological Institute when this work was being done.


6 Clever and low-cost ways to make everyday tasks easier, from people who care for others:

1)  Safer Soap:  Slip soap into a nylon stocking.  Tie to a towel bar or the shower head.  This creates a non-slippery soap that lathers through the stocking.

2)  DIY Ice Pack:  Mix one part rubbing alcohol with two to three parts water into a plastic zipper bag and freeze.  This ice pack will stay cooler longer and will mold to your body where you apply it.

3)  Glow Guides:  Use glow tape for safer walks in the house at night.  Place around light switches and thermostats, and along walls.

4)  No-Slip Sips:  Glue a piece of plastic tubing to a clothespin.  Slide a straw through the tubing and attach the clothespin to a glass.

5)  No-Slip Surfaces:  Apply no-slip paint to walking surfaces inside and outside the home to help prevent your loved one from falling.  The texture of the surface will become gritty.

6)  No-Spill Drinks:  Cut out a nonslip pad and place it on a shelf in the refrigerator.  Put beverage cartons on the pad.  Drinks can then be poured by just tilting the carton forward.