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Measure the stress hormone cortisol on samples with ear wax?

According to the developers, a new type of device for taking ear wax samples can measure the stress hormone cortisol in mental illnesses such as depression. The new method from a study by King’s College London could therefore be an inexpensive and effective alternative. The results, published in the journal Heliyon, could also reveal new ways to monitor depression and stress-related conditions.

Measure levels of the stress hormone cortisol

new device for taking your own ear wax samples

The new device can be used at home without clinical supervision. This makes medical exams easier while maintaining social distancing due to COVID-19. Such an approach can even measure glucose or COVID-19 antibodies that accumulate in the earwax. Sampling the stress hormone cortisol is usually notoriously difficult because this hormone level can fluctuate so that a sample may not provide an accurate representation of a person’s chronic cortisol level. In addition, such a sampling method can itself be stressful and affect the results. However, the cortisol levels in the earwax appear to be more stable. With this new device it is therefore easier to take such a sample in order to have it tested quickly, inexpensively and effectively.

The stress hormone cortisol is responsible for depression and other mental disorders

Cortisol was viewed as a possible biomarker or objective biological measure for depression. However, so far researchers have hampered the challenges of accurately measuring cortisol levels. The most common technique is hair samples, but they are more likely to be subject to short-term fluctuations in the hormone. In addition, not every person has enough hair for a reliable sample. The analysis of hair samples is therefore more time-consuming and expensive compared to ear wax.

woman removing ear wax with cotton swabs

So far, however, there has also been no reliable and stress-free method for collecting ear wax samples. The new self-collection device for ear wax is similar to a cotton swab, but has a brake that prevents the swab from penetrating too far into the ear and causing damage. Its tip is covered with a sponge made of organic material. The solution has been tested to be most effective and reliable when taking a sample.

Study results

blood sample in the laboratory for testing cortisol

This new technology was therefore least affected by disruptive factors such as stressful events or alcohol consumption. This namely contributed to fluctuations in the values ​​in the previous month. In another recent study, participants rated the new device for taking their own samples as more convenient than conventional methods. The developers are also investigating whether the device could be useful for measuring glucose levels from earwax and possibly even monitoring COVID-19 antibodies and diabetes. To of this successful pilot study they hope to improve the diagnosis and care of millions of people with depression or cortisol-related diseases such as Addison’s disease and Cushing’s syndrome. For this purpose, however, the device should be able to withstand further tests in larger studies.