2009 Balzan Prize for Cognitive Neurosciences
An Encounter with Brenda Milner 20.02.2013
Brenda Milner, the Dorothy J. Killam Professor of Psychology in the Montreal Neurological Institute and Professor in the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery, McGill University, Canada, won the 2009 Balzan Prize for Cognitive Neurosciences “for her pioneering studies of the role of the hippocampus in the formation of memory and her identification of different kinds of memory systems.”
We spoke recently with her about the use of the Balzan Prize monies. According to the regulations of the Balzan Foundation since 2001, 50% of the prize winnings should be used for research projects involving younger researchers.
Brenda Milner has set aside the second part of the 2009 Balzan Prize to recruit two post-doctoral fellows from well-established neuroimaging labs Ami Tsuchida (Phd, McGill University) and Meera Palega (Phd, Ryerson University). «It took awhile to get the post-docs that I wanted but I now have them and am delighted to be working with two such talented women; one is from a Japanese family and the other an Indian one».
The Canadian scientist is interested in exploring the issue of hemispheric interaction in cognitive processes. Functional imaging studies have shown increasing recruitment of the right hemisphere as normal healthy subjects grow older and verbal tasks become more demanding. The goal of the research project funded by the Balzan Prize is to gain a better understanding of the significance of such “recruitment.” «I wanted to do something different from my normal work with people with epilepsy. Not a lot has been done on functional imaging. I want to do something new. It is very expensive research, although it’s not the salary for students that is so costly but the imaging and the storage», Milner said. «We are looking at the interaction of the two halves of the brain. Some people are more inclined to use visual imagery while others think in terms of words. Some people are able to use both strategies to facilitate recall,» she said.
The Balzan Prize is awarded without any conditions on the type of projects undertaken. Milner, for example, works on the diagnostic side of science issues. «Later, one can look at the practical applications of the research. What actually is really interesting to scientists is to be able to fund basic science which the Balzan is allowing me to do,» she added.
Milner said she was astonished when she won the Prize. «It was a great honor and privilege. I didn’t believe it at first. I was having breakfast and Balzan Foundation had been trying to reach me but hadn’t been able to. A friend called to say that I had won a big prize. While I knew my university had nominated me, I certainly didn’t think I would win the prize in cognitive neuroscience,» she added.
Very few prizes are awarded in the neurosciences, she said, «Jean-Pierre Changeux had won the Balzan Prize in 2001 [ >> Interview with J.P. Changeux, June 2010 ] but few such prizes are awarded. I know because I have been working in the field for years and years. I think the Balzan Foundation was very brave to give someone as old as I am the prize. I am 94 years old now, 91 when awarded the prize. For me it is wonderful to be working with such young people,» Milner added.
With the prize monies two workshops were also held to plan on how to best proceed with the research. After the second workshop, a McGill-Harvard collaboration was instituted which will combine the expertise of the neuropsychology team at the Montreal Neurological Institute with the expertise in Magnetic Resonance Imagining (MRI) paradigms of the Harvard Group.