Daniel Llano is one of the few who took the hard road through the University of Illinois Medical Scholars Program to become a doctor slash researcher slash professor. His was also an unusual path for the scholars half of the program, one that led through the abandoned mines of Illinois in search of furry creatures hanging from the ceiling.
Llano was in the Illinois’ Medical Scholars Program (MSP) working toward a Ph.D. and a Doctor of Medicine when he took a course with veteran Beckman Institute researcher Al Feng. Feng is a pioneer in auditory signal processing research who studies bats and frogs for what they can tell us about how animals, including humans, communicate. For Llano, taking Feng’s class flipped a switch when it came to doing research.
“It was probably one of the hardest courses I ever took and I didn’t understand anything he was trying to teach us,” Llano said. “When I finally understood what he was trying to tell us about the auditory system, it was like the most beautiful thing in the world.
“I couldn’t believe what the nervous system could do and I couldn’t imagine studying anything else. So I left my old advisor and I joined Al and I’ve been doing this kind of research basically ever since.”
Llano earned his M.D. with a Ph.D. in molecular and integrative physiology working with Feng. The latter experience had him doing field work that twice a year included rounding up bats from the ceilings of abandoned limestone mines near Utica, Illinois, and taking them back to the lab.
“We used to go deep into these pitch dark mines and catch a bunch of bats, and bring them here,” Llano said. “These were old mines so the ceilings weren’t that high. It was me and a postdoc. I would stand on his shoulders, in the pitch dark, with a little light on my head. The bats would be hanging there – if you look up at the ceiling, it looks as if the ceiling is covered with fur – but it’s just bats, and they’re just hanging there. You pick them like apples.
“So, it was really labor intensive but they do such amazing things with their auditory systems, they made a really good model for the area we’re interested in.”
That area of research is what Llano still focuses on today, and it has possible applications in the area of medicine, neurology, in which he specializes as a physician at Carle Foundation Hospital.
“We study the organization of the auditory system and how it changes in various disease states,” Llano said of his research.
Llano investigates, as he writes, “the mechanisms by which complex sounds, such as speech, are processed by the auditory system. We hypothesize that the auditory system generates internal models of the sensory world, and uses these models to extract meaning from complex sensory stimuli.”
Llano and his research group use animal models to look at sub-circuits of the auditory system, using electrophysiological measurements, optical stimulation and recording tools, and computational methods in order to, Llano said, “understand how these (neurological) circuits behave together.”
Current research projects include one involving the hearing disorder of tinnitus, and another that looks at the effects of aging on hearing loss, and how that affects brain circuitry. The former work has shown a drop in inhibition in the cortex in animals with tinnitus, while the latter has also revealed brain changes in the cortex that go along with the aging process.
“We’ve been doing some more fundamental basic research on just the organization of what we call descending projections, so, from the top of the brain, from the cortex, down to the lower structures,” Llano said of the aging research. “We’ve seen a lot more heterogeneity in that projection system than what’s been seen before, meaning we’re finding multiple descending pathways, not just one coming from the cortex. What we hope to do over time is to tease that out and to figure out how that is organized and detailed to see how it changes in response to things like hearing loss, aging, etc.”
Llano said about 80 percent of his time is devoted to the University of Illinois and about 20 percent is spent as a cognitive and behavioral neurologist at Carle who sees patients one day a week. At the U. of I. Llano is an Assistant Professor in Molecular and Integrative Physiology and the College of Medicine, as well as Beckman researcher in the NeuroTech group.
As if that weren’t enough, Llano was also the very first faculty member chosen for the Division of Biomedical Sciences, a two-year old unit created to translate science and engineering research at the U of I into healthcare applications.
“There is a large contingent of patients who have language disturbances who we see at Carle,” Llano said. “We’ve been figuring out the best way to connect researchers here, me and colleagues of mine in speech and hearing science that are interested in language disturbance after stroke, with the infrastructure at Carle. And hopefully, it will be more tied together in the future.”
Even with all the titles and varied duties, Llano’s key motivation still comes from doing science in the lab.
“There are all the things that we hope that we can do for people,” Llano said. “But, what really drives me is that I just really, really love being in the lab; more than I love being in my office, quite frankly.
“I love just trouble shooting the equipment, and designing experiments, staring at the data, and playing with Excel spread sheets and trying to figure out what is happening with the data. Don’t tell anybody, but I would do this for no money. I mean it’s really just fun.”
And if the research leads to the kind of career that Feng, who was a leader in developing the Intelligent Hearing Aid, had, then Llano would be thrilled.
“I think we’re developing the infrastructure here to be able to take new discoveries and actually turn them into things that can be produced and marketed and can really help people, so I think this is the place to be,” he said. “Just look at Al, who spent his whole career doing basic science, and at the very end of his career, figured out, he could use some of these concepts to develop smarter hearing aids and he did.
“I think there is a lot of precedent here to be able to take a scientific idea and really accelerate it and develop something new.”