NEW YORK – Greek-Australian neuropsychologist Mathew Staios plans to commence an Alzheimer’s research project within the ageing Greek-American community, building on his efforts in the Greek-Australian community where he found that tools currently in use to detect dementia are not appropriate and have resulted in misdiagnosis at a rate three times higher than usual. He spoke with The National Herald about his efforts to develop tools to accurately detect dementia in the ageing Greek diaspora community.
TNH: Did you always want to go into the field of neuropsychology?
Mathew Staios: I studied arts (history) and science (psychology) during my undergraduate years. During this time, I fell “in love” with the brain, the crown jewel of science. This led to me into the field of cognitive neuroscience, where I initially spent five years examining neuropsychiatric and social cognitive decline in Motor Neurone Disease, Huntington’s Disease, and Multiple Sclerosis.
During this time, I started my clinical training in the field of neuropsychology. Given that I speak Greek, I was often called on to conducted assessments with elderly Greek Australians. Throughout this process, I came to realize this: the methods (tests) used to detect cognitive decline were not appropriate for use in Greek immigrant and other non-English speaking groups. In fact, the use of tests originating from Australia and the U.S. are three times more likely to result in misdiagnosis when used in low educated non-English speaking groups.
Over the past five years, I have examined the relationship between culture, education, and the way that these processes shape thinking from a cognitive neuroscience perspective. This has resulted in a five year project of adapting and developing new tests for use within the Greek Australian community, leading to accurate and early detection of neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer’s. These tests will be available for use in early 2021.
TNH: Where in Greece is the family from?
MS: My family comes from Norther Greece, Thessaloniki. My parents migrated to Australian in the early 1970’s, along with over 250,000 others, who are now ageing. I am a first generation Greek Australian.
TNH: What made you decide to expand your project to the Greek-American community?
MS: The need for this project to take place in the U.S. is very important due to the issues outlined above. Alongside other minority groups, Greek-Americans are also three times more likely to be misdiagnosed using current tests. Similar to the Greek-Australians, over 200,000 Greeks migrated to the U.S. between the 1960s and 1980s, the majority of whom came from rural areas. Many Greek-Americans obtained limited and inconsistent levels of education prior to migrating due to factors such as World War II and the Greek Civil War. As it stands, this group does not have access to early and accurate disease detection, which can have major implication in terms of treatment outcomes.
TNH: The Greek-American community has also changed dramatically over the years, and is spread out across the U.S., how do you plan on accounting for such factors?
MS: While the Greek community spread throughout the U.S., this study will focus on elderly migrants with low levels of education and limited English skills. These individuals predominately reside in New York and Chicago, which is where the study will take place.
Given the similar factors between Greek-Australians and Greek-Americans in terms of reasons for migrating and level of education, the aim of this study will be to run a pilot to determine whether tests developed for Greek-Australians can be used to detect dementia in Greek-Americans.
My study in Australia has been supported by the Greek Ambassador to Australia, the Consul General to Melbourne and several member of the Greek-Australian community, including Federal Politicians.
I was in DC earlier this year, where I met with the Deputy Head of Mission at the Greek Embassy and the Australian Ambassador to the U.S. (who is a fellow Greek-Australian). They have offered their support and have recognized the importance of expanding this study into the U.S.
TNH: Do you see the project expanding to other Greek enclaves, in Canada, South Africa or the UK, for example?
MS: If this study proves that there are no group differences between Greek-Australians and Greek-Americans, we can confidently make the assumption that the tests that I am in the process of developing are appropriate for use across the wider diaspora, including Canada, South Africa, and the UK.
This is the first step in addressing widespread issues such as inequality, limited access to and accurate detection of diseases in minority groups. Psychological testing was and continues to be geared towards one group in particular, white, middle class, educated, and English-speaking groups. Therefore, the industries understanding of neurological, cognitive and psychosocial processes is biased and not necessarily appropriate for use in groups that do not fall into the category.