New earwax test could reveal stress levels and depression risk

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Psychiatric researchers believe they may have discovered a surprising new approach to diagnosing depression and potentially other emotional disorders — through the ear, of all places. They discovered that earwax retains concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol, which is used to assess mental fitness in clinical settings.

For now, doctors use subjective assessments to arrive at a mental-health diagnosis and decide what therapy is suitable. But Dr. Andres Herane-Vives, a psychiatrist at University College London Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, told the BBC that diagnostic accuracy is “the only way to provide the right treatment.”

The study involved just 37 volunteers, but Herane-Vives believes they’ve effectively demonstrated the viability of their method, which could “transform diagnostics and care for millions of people with depression or stress-related conditions,” he said in a statement.

Currently, the most common method for measuring cortisol is through blood, saliva or urine, but that only provides a snapshot of hormone levels at that moment. In earwax, the chemical settles and builds up over time, indicating to doctors just how long stress levels have been abnormal.

“Cortisol sampling is notoriously difficult, as levels of the hormone can fluctuate,” said Herane-Vives, whose work was published in the journal Heliyon. “Moreover, sampling methods themselves can induce stress and influence the results.”

Originally, researchers had thought to use hair samples, as is done in drug testing. However, by comparison, hair follicles yielded less cortisol than earwax, which also proved to be easier and cheaper to test, thanks to a new wax-retrieving device.

Although it’s not usually necessary to de-wax your ears for good hygiene, professionals are adept at navigating the sensitive ear canal — especially, for example, if someone were to accrue enough wax to cause pain or render their hearing aid ineffective. But researchers’ new method is much simpler than a visit to the ear-nose-and-throat clinic.

From their home, patients can collect a sample and have it sent to a lab for analysis. Trears, the diagnostic swabs devised for the study, have a “brake” that prevents users from swabbing into the ear canal too deeply and damaging the sensitive drum.

It’s a legitimate concern as cotton swabs are still a primary cause for eardrum ruptures. A 2017 report found that 66% of patients treated for traumatic tympanic membrane perforations were caused by “instruments,” primarily cotton-tip applicators (i.e. Q-tips), they said.

With his reliable new method and safer tool, researchers believe we are that much closer to an objective biological measure for psychiatric conditions.

Said Herane-Vives, “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.”

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