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Earwax samples may be used to monitor stress levels and depression, says scientist

The earwax device is similar to a cotton swab, but with a brake that stops it from going too far into the ear and causing damage

Earwax samples could be used as a cheap, easy and effective way to monitor stress and depression after researchers found they give a good insight into our state of mind.

When people become stressed, their bodies release the “stress hormone” cortisol into the bloodstream.

This “fight-or-flight” mechanism increases the heart rate and blood pressure, helping a person to confront the threat that triggered it.

Cortisol levels therefore give a good indication of a person’s mood. But they have traditionally been difficult to measure.

Device could change things

Analysis of a chunk of earwax using a very basic swab-like device could change all that, according to a study published in the journal Heliyon.

“Cortisol sampling is notoriously difficult, as levels of the hormone can fluctuate, so a sample might not be an accurate reflection of a person’s chronic cortisol levels. Moreover, sampling methods themselves can induce stress and influence the results,” said Andres Herane-Vives, of University College London and King’s College London.

“But cortisol levels in earwax appear to be more stable, and with our new device, it’s easy to take a sample and get it tested quickly, cheaply and effectively,” he said.

Cortisol has been considered as a possible “biomarker” for depression for years but researchers have found it difficult to measure it. The most common technique is with hair samples, but they are subject to short-term fluctuations in cortisol, and not everyone has enough hair for a reliable sample.

The device

The new earwax device is similar to a cotton swab, but with a brake that stops it from going too far into the ear and causing damage.

Dr Herane-Vives is now setting up a company, Trears, to bring his earwax sampling device to market, with support from the UCL startup incubator.

“If our device holds up to further scrutiny in larger trials, we hope to transform diagnostics and care for millions of people with depression or cortisol-related conditions such as Addison’s disease and Cushing syndrome, and potentially numerous other conditions,” he said.

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