Remembering Breakthroughs

A New York Times profile earlier this week on Brenda A. Milner, Sc.D., credited her with changing “the course of brain science for good as a newly minted Ph.D. in the 1950s by identifying the specific brain organ that is crucial to memory formation.”

Milner

Photo credit: Owen Egan; Courtesy of the Montreal Neurological Institute, McGill University

Milner, a Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives member, identified the hippocampus and other areas of the brain that process memory while working with Henry Molaison, more commonly known as H.M., who developed amnesia at age 29 from the removal of tissue from both his medial temporal lobes, a surgery that was supposed to alleviate his epilepsy.

With the help of H.M., Milner discovered that memory was processed in the medial temporal lobes, which was why he could no longer form new long-term memories. He was, however, able to learn new tasks, meaning he must remember the actions in another part of the brain. His ability to acquire new skills proved to Milner there are two types of memory that occur in different parts of the brain – explicit memory, which recalls describable details like facts and events, and implicit memory, for unconscious memories such as actions and procedures. Milner described this finding in a 2010 Dana Foundation interview:

I went to the McGill psychology department and borrowed learning tasks to give him [H.M]. I took down a maze task, which I was sure he wouldn’t learn, and he didn’t. It was a nice control test, because he showed absolutely no progress over three days. Then I gave him the mirror drawing task. H.M. did 30 trials over three days and at the end of the last trial, his performance was absolutely perfect. I can still remember him looking at what he had drawn, saying: “This is strange. I thought this would be difficult, but it looks as though I’ve done it rather well.” I was very excited because it showed that he could have this excellent performance without any awareness that the reason he was doing so well was that he had had the chance to practice the task over three days.

When I saw that H.M.  had this beautiful learning of something he had no memory of having acquired, I then speculated that this task, which involved motor learning, depended on a different system in the brain. His surgeon had damaged his medial temporal system, but this was a kind of learning that was unaffected by this operation, so therefore it must involve other structures.

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DABI Members Win Kavli Prize for Neuroscience

raichle milner okeefe
Kavli neuroscience winners Marcus E. Raichle and Brenda Milner, DABI members, and John O’Keefe

For the star-studded cast who made up two panels at this year’s Kavli Prize award ceremony (available via webcast) at the World Science Festival in New York City today, special significance was attached to the death in November of the Norwegian-born Fred Kavli, the benefactor of 17 institutes in various parts of the world, including five dedicated solely to neuroscience.

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Brenda Milner Wins the 2011 Pearl Meister Greengard Prize

Today, Dana Alliance Member Brenda Milner, Ph.D., will be awarded the 2011 Pearl Meister Greengard Prize for her contributions to the field of cognitive neuroscience.

Many past Dana publications highlight Dr. Milner’s work with Patient H.M., now known to be Henry Gustav Molaison—the focus of this month’s “From the Archives” feature. Milner

In 1953, Mr. Molaison underwent surgery that removed two-thirds of his hippocampus—the part of the brain responsible for memory formation and storage—along with several other structures involved with emotions and memory, in an attempt to control his severe epilepsy.

The surgery successfully alleviated Mr. Molaison’s seizures. But it also left him without the ability to form new memories. Dr. Milner began working with him in 1955. In an interview from March 2010, she described her early experiences:

I gave him standard intelligence tests and memory tests . . . and I would talk to him, distract him and give him numbers to remember and so on. H.M. (Henry Molaison) could pay attention and had no problem with immediate memory, but as soon as he was distracted, he would forget what had happened before. So you could make this general prediction [about H.M.] that he’s going to forget everything, but no psychologist is happy with this sort of statement—you can’t test a null hypothesis. The challenge was: with practice, with repetition, could he learn something?

I went to the McGill psychology department and borrowed learning tasks to give him. I took down a maze task, which I was sure he wouldn’t learn, and he didn’t. It was a nice control test, because he showed absolutely no progress over three days. Then I gave him the mirror drawing task. H.M. did 30 trials over three days and at the end of the last trial, his performance was absolutely perfect. I can still remember him looking at what he had drawn, saying: “This is strange. I thought this would be difficult, but it looks as though I’ve done it rather well.” I was very excited because it showed that he could have this excellent performance without any awareness that the reason he was doing so well was that he had had the chance to practice the task over three days.

When I saw that H.M. had this beautiful learning of something he had no memory of having acquired, I then speculated that this task, which involved motor learning, depended on a different system in the brain. His surgeon had damaged his medial temporal system, but this was a kind of learning that was unaffected by this operation, so therefore it must involve other structures.

In 2007, a Gray Matters radio segment featured her work with Mr. Molaison—you can listen to or read a transcript of the segment, which includes the voices of both Dr. Milner and Mr. Molaison.

Following Mr. Molaison’s death in 2008, the Dana Foundation partially funded the dissection and digital preservation of his brain.

–Johanna Goldberg

(Photo credit: Owen Egan; courtesy of the Montreal Neurological Institute, McGill University)

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