How has our understanding of the mysterious tissue between our ears changed in the past 50 years? In her Totally Cerebral episodes on Transistor, neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki introduces us to scientists who have uncovered some of the deepest secrets about how our brains make us who we are.
Brenda Milner in 2011 | Photo by Eva Blue
Wendy begins by talking with groundbreaking experimental psychologist Brenda Milner, who in the 1950s, completely changed our understanding of the parts of the brain important for forming new long-term memories. Through her observation and careful study of patients with profound amnesia, Brenda wrote a paper in 1957 that broke with the accepted theories about memory, and blew open the entire field of neuroscience.
Inside the Episode
The brain! The front view shows the location of the right and left hippocampus (in orange/yellow) within the brain’s temporal lobe. The side view shows the location of the left hippocampus (in orange/yellow) within the temporal lobe. (Click to enlarge.)
Brenda Milner was born in 1918, and she is still working and using the same wooden chair in her office at McGill University in Montreal, where she wrote her pioneering paper on HM and memory. In fact, if you listen carefully in the episode you may hear the faint squeak of her wooden desk chair, which she has used for more than 50 years. Brenda has received numerous prizes for her work, including the Kavli Prize in 2014.
Patient HM is perhaps the most famous amnesic patient in history. He had experimental surgery in 1953 to address his severe epilepsy, and when he woke up it was immediately clear that something was horribly wrong.
For 47 years, Suzanne Corkin, a former student of Brenda Milner, studied HM in her own lab at MIT. She’s the author of Permanent Present Tense: The Unforgettable Life of the Amnesic Patient HM. We’ll hear more from Suzanne in the next episode of Transistor.
Brain image from Shutterstock.