Earwax could be a cheap way to diagnose depression because it can harbor high concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol, scientists say

  • A team of international researchers says a new earwax collection device may be a simple, cheap, painless, and effective way of measuring cortisol levels, and in turn, risk for stress-related conditions like depression. 
  • The small study found that earwax contains more highly concentrated cortisol that hair samples, a more traditional method, and isn't so influenced by momentary stressors or other factors. 
  • While the researchers hope their method may provide clinicians a more objective measure of mental illness, a psychologist told Insider that's not necessary and may invalidate people's just-as-real emotions. 
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Clinicians have long advised against removing earwax with a Q-Tip, since the swabs can plunge too far and cause damage to the sensitive eardrum. 

But a team of researchers from the UK, Chile, and Germany say collecting earwax with their new device, called Trears, is not only safe but could be a powerful way to monitor depression and other stress-related conditions, according to a study they published this month in the journal Heliyon.  

The device works by measuring levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which accumulates in earwax. Cortisol is typically measured through the blood, urine, saliva, or hair samples, but those samples only provide a snapshot of stress levels, which may rise due to the invasive measure of the tests themselves. 

Cortisol levels in earwax, by contrast "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," lead researcher Dr. Andres Herane-Vives of King's College London said in a statement. 

The method could make diagnosing certain mental illness more accurate, the researchers say, by adding an objective measure to more subjective ones, like in-person behavioral assessments. People can also use the device at home, protecting their eardrums via the built-in "brake."

With further research, Herane-Vives said, "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."

The study compared earwax samples with those of blood and hair 

To develop Trears, the research team tested cortisol levels in 37 participants' earwax, first using a standard (and somewhat painful) syringe procedure and, a month later, using the same procedure in one ear and the team's new procedure in the other. 

They also collected cortisol samples from the hair and blood. 

They found the earwax contained more concentrated cortisol than hair samples, though not as much as blood. The new technique was the fastest and potentially cheapest, too, and was least influenced by other factors like alcohol consumption and momentary stressful events. It was also rated as more comfortable than more traditional methods. 

The research team is now looking into whether Trears, which is being developed with support from the University College London's Hatchery startup incubator, can help measure glucose levels, which can help monitor diabetes, or even COVID-19 antibodies. 

The study had limitations, including its small sample size and the fact that the participants' wakeup times weren't recorded, which could have influenced the cortisol levels in their blood. Plus, the authors say, the ear and blood serum cortisol levels were analyzed in different labs than the hair cortisol samples, which means they couldn't be directly compared.

Two of the study authors funded the study themselves, and several have ties to pharmaceutical companies.

The Trears earwax sampling device.
Trears

Clinical psychologist Emily Anhalt told Insider that while the study highlights earwax's underappreciated "cool factor," the larger concept that we need objective clinical evidence to diagnose mental health conditions is flawed. 

"Do we really need to collect earwax and send it to a lab to know and be believed that we are stressed or depressed?" Anhalt, co-founder of Coa, which pegs itself as the world's first "gym" for mental health, said.

"I believe our culture desperately wants mental health struggles to be simple: an imbalance of chemicals that can be identified and righted, when really, they are much more often symptoms that are pointing to pain, traumas, unhealthy systems that need to be addressed, and being human." 

She said she hopes people can get the support and help they need, whether or not their earwax is packed with cortisol. 

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