Associate Professor Mathew Summers is a researcher in neuropsychology and mental health. He trained as a Clinical Neuropsychologist and has practiced as a Neuropsychologist for 20 years alongside his academic duties.
“As a Neuropsychologist I have seen hundreds of patients for assessment of cognitive complaints including diagnosing dementias in older adults. As a clinician, giving a person a diagnosis of dementia is challenging as there is nothing we can offer the person in terms of effective treatment. As a researcher, this has motivated my research projects to undertake research that will be of direct benefit to older adults suffering from dementia. Hence, the majority of my research focuses on exploring the effectiveness of non-pharmacological interventions in slowing, halting or reversing the progression of neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia.”
Associate Professor Summers is currently undertaking numerous collaborative research projects in dementia and aging including:
- My-AHA (My Active and Healthy Aging): Funded by the European Union Horizon 2020 consortium grant and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) EU project grant (2016-2020), this is a large scale consortium-based research project involving 16 partners across Europe (Italy, Spain, Austria, Germany, Netherlands, Portugal, UK), Asia (Japan, South Korea) and Australia. The main aim of the My-AHA project is to reduce frailty in at-risk older adults by improving physical activity, cognitive function, psychological health, social resources, nutrition, sleep and general well-being. The My-AHA project will develop in-home ICT based solutions for monitoring the older adult’s performance across the various domains and provide an individually tailored and continuously updated rehabilitation/intervention program for each individual.
- THBP (Tasmanian Healthy Brain Project): Funded by National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) project grant, the THBP is a USC- University of Tasmania collaboration that is a world-first longitudinal project that commenced in 2011. The aim of the THBP is to determine whether engaging older adults (aged 60-79 years) in further education can reduce the rate of age-related cognitive decline and risk for dementia later in life. Currently there are 459 older Tasmanians continuing in this project.
- Improving diagnosis of preclinical dementia in community samples: In collaboration with University of California San Diego, Cambridge University and University of Tasmania, this project is a continuation of previous research conducted by Ass Prof Summer’s laboratory. Ass Prof Summer’s team developed a method to enhance the diagnosis of Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), resulting in significant reductions to the false positive diagnostic rate. This project will extend on the previous work and further enhance diagnostic sensitivity and specificity using additional techniques such as magnetic resonance spectroscopy at USC’s new Sunshine Coast Mind and Neuroscience – Thompson Institute.
- TABLEToP Study (tablet based testing for post-operative cognitive dysfunction): This project, a USC collaboration with Sunshine Coast Hospital and Health Service, will develop a bedside assessment tool for assessing cognitive dysfunction in patients after surgery to guide rehabilitation and discharge planning in acute clinical care settings.
Associate Professor Summers is also involved in PhD projects ‘using mindfulness to enhance attention in healthy older adults’ and one examining ‘cognitive changes associated with cardiovascular disease‘.
Research significance and impacts
Dementia has highly significant impacts at the individual, community and societal levels. Research investigating methods to reduce the impact of dementia and cognitive decline have the potential for highly significant impacts across all three areas:
- For the individual, dementia is a devastating and ultimately terminal condition, robbing from the person of their sense of identity. For the individual, supporting quality of life throughout the disease process is imperative. Research targeting maximising quality of life for the adult with dementia throughout all stages of disease progress will have highly significant impacts for the individual with dementia.
- For the community (carers, family, friends, and wider community) – dementia has wide-spreading ripple effects. The closer a person is to someone with dementia the greater the impact as the burden of care typically falls on family members. Supporting carers of persons with dementia is essential to maximise quality of life for the person with dementia and to minimise the negative impact on the community.
- For society – dementia imposes significant economic costs to the wider society. Approximately 1.1% of Australians currently live with dementia and dementia is the leading cause of disability in Australians. It is projected that by 2050, 2.8% of the Australian population will be living with dementia. This increase will exert significant economic pressure. In 2002-2003, 4.5% ($3.85 billion) of the entire health care and aged care budget was expended on dementia. By 2060 the economic cost of dementia is expected to increase to 11% ($83 billion) of the entire heath care budget. The discovery of methods to improve the diagnosis, treatment, rehabilitation, support of persons with dementia will have very significant economic benefits to Australia.
“I hope that one day the magic pill that cures dementia will be discovered – but in light of the repeated failures to find a cure over the past 110 years of research, it is important that we explore methods to enhance the quality of life for adults suffering from dementia.”