In The Field

Neuroscience 2008: Remembering memory

The History of Neuroscience lecture this afternoon was one I had been really looking forward to. McGill University’s Brenda Milner was to speak on the field of memory, which – when she began to study it in the 1950s – was rather unfashionable and certainly understudied.

Milner was recruited to the Montreal Neurological Institute to work alongside surgeon Wilder Penfield, who was performing operations to treat intractable epilepsy. The recognised procedure at the time involved taking out tissue from the brain’s temporal lobe. Of course, looking inside the brain to discern what to take and what to leave was barely possible when these operations were being carried out, and so in a couple of cases, surgeons removed far more than they bargained for. Milner tested memory in several patients who had had such surgery, and the expertise of her and her colleagues in this area led Dr Henry Scoville to get in touch when in 1953, an operation he had performed for epilepsy at a hospital in Hertford, Connecticut had left his patient with severe amnesia.

That patient was HM, whose anterograde amnesia (he cannot form new memories) has since been widely studied by Milner and subsequently her colleagues and others. Milner told his story with wit and warmth, explaining what it was like to work with him for 30 years (he was very friendly and amenable to being studied, and would try hard to perform well on the tests he was given), illustrating the challenges with anecdotes. There were many times she would give him a test to do, step out of the room for half an hour, and then go back in and have to reintroduce herself as if they had never met.

One particularly lasting contribution was her finding that although HM couldn’t tell her who the president was, or remember a number she had given him 5 minutes earlier, he could in fact form one type of new memory, and that was for motor skills. Milner described to us a set of tests on mirror drawing, where the subject must draw a figure looking not at their hand but in a mirror – something that normal subjects improve upon over time. HM also showed this improvement, but he wouldn’t remember having done the test before, and as a consequence he thought the test rather easy.

The pace with which Milner delivered her talk was pretty swift, and certainly belied her 90 years (she was born in 1918 in Manchester, UK). But to listen to such an engaging speaker talk about such a pioneering life in science – I only wished it could have gone on longer.

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