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New Earwax Sampling Device May Reveal If You Are Depressed or Not

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
Earwax sample could indicate depression.

A novel way to sample earwax from your home can determine if you are showing biological signs of depression.

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New Way to Collect Earwax Sample

A health news release from King’s College London reports that researchers have developed a novel earwax sampling device so simple to use, that many can do it from the safety and comfort of their home.

Inspired by the bacteriostatic properties of honeycomb wax that prevents bacterial contamination and acts as a type of preservative allowing honey to be stored for long periods at room temperature, researchers hypothesized that earwax may have similar properties that could improve the collecting of key biological markers of health normally collected from blood, hair, skin, and saliva samples.

Earwax Contains Traces of Hormone Cortisol

Earwax (also known as cerumen) is the oily secretion delivered into the auditory canal by the apocrine and sebum glands of the ear. As it turns out, earwax can accumulate stress hormone compounds such as cortisol, which previously have been collected from hair, blood, and saliva samples. The problem with collecting cortisol samples from the aforementioned samples is that confounding factors such as bacterial contamination, time-sensitive fluctuations, and the instability of cortisol have arguably resulted in inconsistent and inaccurate measures of true cortisol levels.

“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,” stated lead researcher Dr. Andres Herane-Vives, from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s and UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience for the health news release. “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.”

For the study, detection of the cortisol biomarker was chosen due to that cortisol levels are indicative in people who suffer from depression.

Previously, earwax samples would have to be removed with a swab that risked perforating the eardrum, or through a rather painful wash that was not considered patient-friendly.

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According to the news release, a solution to the problem of earwax sampling, was created when Dr. Herane-Vives and his colleagues developed a “…novel earwax self-sampling device similar to a cotton swab, but with a brake that stops the swab from going too far into the ear and causing damage. The tip is covered with a sponge of organic material, with a solution that has been tested to be the most effective and reliable at taking samples.”

To determine the efficacy of the novel swab, a comparison of measured cortisol samples was made from both hair and blood samples against that of swab samples using sample collection from 37 study participants to test the different cortisol sampling techniques.

What the results showed was that, “The researchers found that earwax samples yielded more cortisol than hair samples, and the new technique was the fastest and potentially cheapest method. The novel technique was the least influenced by confounding factors such as stressful events or alcohol consumption contributing to cortisol fluctuations over the previous month. In another recent study, participants rated the new self-sampling device as more comfortable than traditional methods.”

The significance of their findings is that the earwax sampling device could prove to be very useful for measuring other biomarkers of health such as glucose levels in diabetics and possibly even COVID-19 antibodies for coronaviral infection.

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“After this successful pilot study, 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,” stated Dr. Andres Herane-Vives.

Timothy Boyer has a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. For 20+ years he has been employed as a freelance health and science writer. Today, with an eye on the latest news, Timothy continues writing about science with a focus on what you need to know for healthier living. For continual updates about health, you can also follow Timothy on Twitter at TimBoyerWrites.

Image Source: Courtesy of Hayes Potter on Unsplash

References:

Earwax sampling could measure stress hormone” King’s College London health news, 3 Nov. 2020.

Measuring Earwax Cortisol Concentration using a non-stressful sampling method” Andres Herane-Vives et al.; Heliyon Volume 6, Issue 11, E05124, November 01, 2020.

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