Research prize unexpected

When Dr. Brenda Milner learned she had been awarded a $1-million Balzan Prize earlier this week, she thought there had been a mistake.

Dr. Brenda Milner

Dr. Brenda Milner

TORONTO — When Dr. Brenda Milner learned she had been awarded a $1-million Balzan Prize earlier this week, she thought there had been a mistake.

Milner, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the Montreal Neurological Institute of McGill University, is one of four recipients of the prestigious 2009 award from the European-based Balzan Foundation.

“It did come right out of the blue, so my first reaction was that the person who told me had sort of misread something,” Milner said in an interview from Montreal.

While aware that McGill University had nominated her for the prize, based on her almost 60-year body of work in the field, Milner didn’t think she’d even make the short list.

“The first thing really was surprise because I think the odds against are high. They don’t give it in cognitive neuroscience every year and they just give one,” she said.

And because half the prize money must be used for research, Milner thought her age might be an issue.

She is 91.

But Milner is considered a legend in the field. Nobel laureate Eric Kandel credits her with marrying neurobiology and psychology to form the new field of cognitive neuroscience that has spawned a vast body of research and changed the way patients are treated.

She is thrilled to have been given the award, one of numerous honours she has received, including the Gairdner International Award in 2005 and being promoted to a Companion of the Order of Canada in 2004.

“You have to sort of pinch yourself, it’s true. It is very exciting,” she said. “It’s also as much for my colleagues, you know. It’s teamwork that achieves anything in science.”

British-born Milner came to Canada in 1944 with her then-husband, Peter Milner, who was recruited to join a team for a year doing research on atomic energy. They ended up staying.

In the early 1950s, Milner was asked to join the Montreal Neurological Institute that had been set up by famed neurosurgeon Dr. Wilder Penfield after she began doing research involving patients who had developed amnesia.

Almost six decades later, she is still doing research and teaching students.

“I’ve stayed at The Neuro all this tine, since 1950. And I’m still here and they’re still happy to have me,” she says, laughing.

In fact, the Balzan research money will help her pursue a path she has become increasingly intrigued by: how the two hemispheres of the brain interact together, especially as related to memory.

“I’m very interested in the right-left story.”

Milner, who has no children or other family (she was an only child), says she has no plans to retire any time soon. Working is what she likes best.

“It’s not just that I love working. I like the people I work with. I like the environment. I’m very comfortable with scientists, I just like them. And I really like students, I enjoy teaching.”