Yale’s Biomedical Engineering Program will receive a $7.1 million grant — the largest in its history — for a project designed to study epileptic seizures, the University will announce today.

The grant will be the very first given out by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, the newest institute at the National Institutes of Health. Yale’s proposal, a collaboration between scientists, doctors and engineers, could dramatically change the way brain surgery is performed by enabling doctors to more accurately pinpoint the origins of seizures within the human brain.

“Yale’s a perfect place for [this type of research] because we have the best imaging facilities and research in the country in the areas of magnetic resonance imaging and magnetic resonance spectroscopy,” Faculty of Engineering Dean Paul Fleury said yesterday. He added that Yale is also a leader in “imaging analysis and representation, turning data into useful information that surgeons can use in the operating room.”

Fleury said the research performed with the NIH grant will have far-reaching implications.

“I think the principles and the methods that this research will devise are going to find applications and implications that go well beyond the treatment of neocortical epilepsy,” he said.

Yale President Richard Levin echoed Fleury’s comments, saying that this grant is “a very important new initiative where we feel Yale has a real opportunity to move quickly to a national leadership position.”

The proposal, titled “Bioimaging and Intervention in Neocortical Epilepsy,” will use novel imaging techniques to visualize and better understand the physiological properties of the brain that cause seizures. The clinical utility of such bioimaging was pioneered at Yale, said Bruce McClennan, the chairman of diagnostic radiology at the Yale School of Medicine.

Epilepsy, a neurological disorder that triggers debilitating seizures, affects nearly 100 million people worldwide. It is one of few such disorders that can be cured by taking out small sections of the brain, which currently involves two six-to-seven hour surgeries.

“We will integrate information about the suspected location of the seizures with information about surrounding brain function to help the surgeon plan these complex surgeries and navigate during them,” said James Duncan, a professor of diagnostic radiology and electrical engineering, who is also one of the project’s primary investigators. “We believe that these strategies will significantly decrease the time involved to perform the surgeries.”

But Duncan does not limit his ambition to simply reducing the time patients are in surgery. He foresees this bioimaging research, along with the work of his colleagues here at Yale, leading to novel forms of treatment, including less invasive surgeries.

“Magnetic resonance spectroscopy can identify the biochemical signature of tissues that cause the seizures,” Duncan said. “Rather than do large surgeries where part of the cranium has to be taken out and the brain cut, maybe what can happen is much smaller holes can be put in the brain and a bio-sensor implanted.”

The idea is that this bio-sensor could recognize specific chemical changes associated with the areas of the brain responsible for the seizures and release specific chemicals to eliminate these tissues.

This type of drug-delivery system involving bio-sensors is just the type of research done by new professor Mark Saltzman. Saltzman recently agreed to join the faculty at Yale, having already established himself as a leader in the molecular engineering field while at Cornell.

“His arrival immediately strengthens the entire [biomedical engineering] program,” Levin said.

The addition of Saltzman to the faculty and the NIH grant mark a new era in biomedical engineering research at Yale, Fleury and Duncan said.

“This work is an example of the type of strong cross-campus, interdisciplinary efforts that are at the core of the Yale Biomedical Engineering Program,” Duncan said. “[Bioimaging and molecular engineering] will be the pillars upon which the program will continue to be built.”