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The 2011 Pearl Meister Greengard Prize: Honoring Dr. Brenda Milner for her pioneering work in cognitive neuroscience

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Tragic it is when a young mother never gets to meet her newborn child; however, it is also awe-inspiring to see a victim of this circumstance rise above and honor his mother’s sacrifice.  On December 11th, 1925, the complications surrounding Paul Greengard’s birth resulted in the death of his mother, nee Pearl Meister.  Almost 75 years later, the Nobel laureate and Rockefeller University professor and his wife, Ursula von Rydingsvard, paid homage to his late mother – and to women in science – by launching the Pearl Meister Greengard Prize.

Dr. Brenda Milner (image obtained from The Rockefeller University)

This year’s recipient is Dr. Brenda Milner, the Dorothy J. Killam Professor at McGill University’s Montreal Neurological Institute and professor in the department of neurology and neurosurgery at McGill University.  On November 3rd, Dr. Milner will be honored in the eight year of this prestigious award.  She is among the many women who have paved the way for women’s progress in academia and this ceremony to celebrate her work is nothing short of well deserved.

History of the Pearl Meister Greengard Prize

Though progress has been made over the years, women are still sorely underrepresented in the upper ranks of biomedical research.  This statement is backed up by a plethora of statistics, with perhaps the breakdown of inductees into the National Academy of Sciences representing the prime example of this inequitable paradigm.  Dr. Greengard recognizes this disparity stating that “[women] are not yet receiving awards and honors at a level commensurate with their achievements.”

Dr. Paul Greengard (image obtained from Wikipedia Commons)

In 1998, Dr. Greengard and Ursula von Rydingsvard decided to go beyond the simple acknowledgement of gender bias in biomedical research and began to fund an award that simultaneously honored Pearl Meister Greengard and outstanding women scientists.  He started with the $50,000 award for medical research he received from the Metropolitan Life Foundation and matched it with $50,000 of his own money.   He was also able to raise money from a number of very generous independent donors.  However, the endowment for the Pearl Meister Greengard Prize was significantly advanced in 2000 when Dr. Greengard won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on the neurological understanding of psychological disorders – a prize that was shared with Eric Kandel of Columbia University and Arvid Carlsson of Goteborg University.   The $400,000 donation made by Dr. Greengard – his entire Nobel Prize winnings – brought the Pearl Meister Greengard Prize funding to a level that would support an annual prize.

After a six-year gestational period, the Pearl Meister Greengard Prize was finally brought to life. In November of 2004, the French embryologist Nicole Le Douarin became the first Pearl Meister Greengard Prize recipient, beginning a wonderful tradition of recognizing internationally outstanding women in the field of biomedical research.  Also included in this new declaration of women’s scientific achievements was to have the award presented by another exceptional woman role model – one who was not necessarily involved in science.  To date, there have been twelve women recognized by the Pearl Meister Greengard Prize committee, two of whom (Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider) have gone on to win the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, leading Sir Paul Nurse to joke in his 2010 introduction to the Pearl Meister Greengard Prize ceremony, where we go, Stockholm follows.

Defenders of DNA. From left to right, the 2008 Pearl Meister Greengard Prize recipients Vicki Lundblad, Carol W. Greider and Elizabeth H. Blackburn (image obtained from The Rockefeller University).

Although he never knew his mother, Dr. Greengard saw her as an example of how women have been held back simply because of the fact that they had two X chromosomes.  In his video about this prestigious prize, Dr. Greengard discusses his mother: She was by all accounts a very talented woman but she was restricted to doing secretarial work. He further adds, Because I wanted to do something about the discrimination against women, it seemed that it would be a nice thing to name it in honor of her memory.

Honoring Dr. Brenda Milner’s legacy and the modern era of memory research

The 2011 Pearl Meister Greengard prize will go to Dr. Brenda Milner of McGill University for her work in the field of cognitive neuroscience.  On November 3rd, in a ceremony to take place in the historic Caspary Auditorium at The Rockefeller University, the former president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, will present Dr. Milner with this international award.

Considered the to be founder of neuropsychology, a discipline that examines the association between brain structure and psychological behavior, Dr. Milner began her career studying experimental psychology at Cambridge University in the late 1930’s.  After a brief period examining fighter pilot aptitude during World War II, Dr. Milner moved to Canada in 1944, taking an academic position at the Institute of Psychology at the University of Montreal.  However, it was not until 1950 that she moved to McGill University, where she began her doctoral studies at the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI).

Though Dr. Milner was technically the doctoral student of Dr. Donald Hebb, she served as a modern-day medical apprentice to Dr. Wilder Penfield, who was developing a type of surgical procedure to help treat patients with severe epilepsy.

Dr. Wilder Penfield (Image obtained here)

Using an electroencephalogram (EEG) test to map the affected areas in the brain in patients with epilepsy, Dr. Penfield developed a more directed surgical technique that allowed neurosurgeons to treat only brain regions associated with the epileptic seizures, lessening the need for potentially damaging exploratory procedure.  Dr. Milner developed her doctoral research project around this technique, developing a series of tests in order to accurately demonstrate the efficacy of this type of surgery. The new approach introduced by Dr. Penfield primarily dealt with an area of the brain called the temporal lobe.

Basic brain anatomy (image obtained here)

This region of the brain includes the very important hippocampus, which is the neurological component associated with long-term memory function.  Dr. Milner noted that though these procedures were quite effective in lessening the number and severity of epileptic episodes, some patients who had undergone this surgery suffered from memory issues.  Because of these findings, Dr. Milner shifted the direction of her research and began to study the neurological processes involved in focus and memory.

Dr. Milner’s studies quickly led to a collaboration that would forever change the field of cognitive neuroscience.  After catching word of her research, Dr. William Beecher Scoville, the neurosurgeon responsible for the patient known to the world only as H.M. (revealed to be Henry Gustav Molaison at the time of his death in December 2008), contacted Dr. Milner’s group.

Dr. Scoville had performed a temporal lobectomy on H.M., who, because of a severe childhood head injury, had been suffering from about 20 epileptic seizures per day.  Though the surgery had done wonders for H.M.’s epilepsy, the procedure left him completely unable to form new memories.  In essence, H.M. could not remember a single event prior to the surgery – no recollection of who he had met that day, who the president was, or even what he had for breakfast.  Soon enough, Dr. Milner found herself regularly taking the night train from Quebec to Hartford to visit H.M., administering a series of memory exams with each visit.

In 1957, along with Dr. Scoville, Dr. Milner co-authored a scientific paper describing their results.  In this seminal article, it was found that there is a positive relationship between the extent of destruction to the hippocampal complex specifically and the degree of memory impairment.  For the first time, it was postulated that memory was something that could be traced back to a single neurological region and was not something associated with the entire brain.  Because this conclusion went against the accepted dogma, it was highly questioned by the scientific establishment.  However, the doubts associated with Dr. Milner’s initial publication regarding H.M. quickly faded, beginning in 1962 when she showed that H.M. was able to learn a new motor skill using visual perception.  This landmark study was the first to suggest that there are at least two neurological systems for memory and that different areas of the brain are responsible for different types of memory, such as that associated with learning new motor skills.

Dr. Milner continued with her research on H.M., radically changing our understanding of how learning and memory worked.  As it was written in the McGill Reporter in 2007, Milner has been blazing trails over the last 50 years, making her name as one of the most important neuroscientists of the twentieth century.  Along with the accolades have come the awards. She’s been inducted into the National Academy of Sciences (USA) and the Royal Societies of London and Canada and is a Companion of the Order of Canada, to name but a few of her honours.  Also included in Dr. Milner’s list of incredible honors are the Balzan Prize for Cognitive Neurosciences, the Gairdner Foundation International Award and now the prestigious Pearl Meister Greengard Prize.

When asked to comment on the newest of these awards, Dr. Milner humbly states: I am absolutely delighted and amazed to receive this special award and so proud and honored to be representing women scientists in this context.  I am very privileged for having been able to pursue my sense of curiosity within the culture of excellence at the Montreal Neurological Institute, as well as to train and encourage talented young students — driving forces throughout my career to which I attribute much of my success.  The Rockefeller University and the scientific community as a whole look forward to November 3rd so that we may pay homage to the woman who has paved the way not only for neuropsychology, but also for women who choose to pursue a career as a biomedical researcher.

 

Jeanne Garbarino About the Author: Jeanne Garbarino is a mother of two young girls, aged 2 and 4. In her other (easier) gig, Jeanne is a postdoc at Rockefeller University in the Laboratory of Biochemical Genetics and Metabolism. There, she studies how cholesterol moves inside of our cells and relates this information to human health and the development of cardiovascular disease. In addition to being a scientific researcher, Jeanne is a self-proclaimed scientist-communicator, often blogging about relevant scientific issues on her blog The Mother Geek, as well as co-organizing a monthly science discussion series, Science Online NYC (#SoNYC), which is open to anyone who is interested about how science is conducted. You can find her tweeting as @JeanneGarb or can follow The Mother Geek on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @JeanneGarb.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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