NOV 06, 2020 1:19 PM PST

Your Earwax Says You're Depressed

WRITTEN BY: Tara Fernandez

Cortisol, commonly known as the “stress hormone”, is the body’s built-in alarm system that sends sirens blaring upon sensing environmental stressors. Such triggers have evolved from predators to busy work schedules, but cortisol’s fight-or-flight response has remained constant throughout our evolutionary histories. Cortisol levels serve as a physiological marker of stress and also depression. However, it’s difficult to draw a straight line between these physiological states and the amount of circulating cortisol at any given moment.

Dr. Andres Herane-Vives from King’s College London explains: “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.”

Herane-Vives and colleagues have proposed a novel, low-cost method for effectively tracking cortisol levels to diagnose stress and depression: by sampling earwax using a newly-designed device.

“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,” commented Herane-Vives. The findings were published in the academic journal Heliyon.

At present, cortisol is measured by taking hair samples — a time-consuming, expensive, and notoriously unreliable protocol. With hair samples, it’s difficult to understand trends due to the possibility of short-term fluctuations in cortisol levels.

The research team was drawn to the possibility of using earwax due to its similarities to another naturally-occurring wax — beeswax. Bees produce this waxy substance with antibacterial properties to build honeycombs. Likewise, earwax is also resistant to contamination and has a longer shelf life for patients who are shipping samples to a centralized diagnostic facility.

The self-sampling device that Herane-Vives and the team constructed was elegantly designed to be safe and easy to use. Structured like a cotton swab, the spongy sampling tip has a safety feature that prevents the user from pushing it too far into the ear canal.

In a small study involving around 40 participants, the team tested the new earwax sampling device alongside the current hair sampling method. They revealed that the earwax protocol not only contained more cortisol than hair samples, but it was also cheaper, faster, and less invasive for patients.

“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,” said Herane-Vives.

 

 

Sources: Heliyon, UCL News.

About the Author
  • Tara Fernandez has a PhD in Cell Biology and has spent over a decade uncovering the molecular basis of diseases ranging from skin cancer to obesity and diabetes. She currently works on developing and marketing disruptive new technologies in the biotechnology industry. Her areas of interest include innovation in molecular diagnostics, cell therapies, and immunology. She actively participates in various science communication and public engagement initiatives to promote STEM in the community.
You May Also Like
OCT 23, 2020
Clinical & Molecular DX
Follow Your Heart: A Genetic Predictor of Cardiovascular Disease
OCT 23, 2020
Follow Your Heart: A Genetic Predictor of Cardiovascular Disease
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death globally, resulting in the loss of nearly 18 million lives each yea ...
DEC 24, 2020
Clinical & Molecular DX
Feeling Unmotivated? It Could Be Dementia.
DEC 24, 2020
Feeling Unmotivated? It Could Be Dementia.
Apathy, characterized by a pronounced lack of enthusiasm, motivation, or interest, is a predictor of the future onset of ...
DEC 30, 2020
Clinical & Molecular DX
Of Mice and Men: Deep Learning Transforms Diagnostics
DEC 30, 2020
Of Mice and Men: Deep Learning Transforms Diagnostics
Medical imaging technologies enable physicians to take a peek under the hood, capturing snapshots of the internal organs ...
JAN 26, 2021
Clinical & Molecular DX
Prostate Cancer Screening: No More False Positives
JAN 26, 2021
Prostate Cancer Screening: No More False Positives
A new diagnostic test powered by artificial intelligence has been found to detect prostate cancer markers in urine sampl ...
FEB 09, 2021
Cardiology
Iron Levels as a Prognostic Indicator for Heart Failure
FEB 09, 2021
Iron Levels as a Prognostic Indicator for Heart Failure
When people think of iron, it usually brings up images of big hunks of metal. But did you know it is also essential for ...
FEB 11, 2021
Clinical & Molecular DX
Seeing if Hormone Therapy Will Work for Breast Cancer Patients
FEB 11, 2021
Seeing if Hormone Therapy Will Work for Breast Cancer Patients
Only around half of women diagnosed with breast cancer will benefit from hormonal therapy, a cancer treatment that adds, ...
Loading Comments...