Brain Sciences


UCL Brain Sciences academic invents ingenious way of measuring stress hormone

Dr Andres Herane-Vives has developed a novel method of using earwax to measure cortisol levels.

Trears earwax sampling devices

18 February 2021

Dr Herane-Vives is an academic at the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King's College London. He led a team of researchers to create an earwax sampling device.

Cortisol is a biomarker for monitoring depression and stress-related conditions. Hair samples are commonly used to measure cortisol levels. However, hair samples can be subject to short-term fluctuations in cortisol, and not everybody has enough hair from which to take a reliable sample.  

This new device allows users to measure their cortisol levels without medical supervision. It resembles a cotton swab but has a brake to stop it from going too far into the ear and causing damage.

Honeycomb from bees, another natural wax, inspired Dr Herane-Vives's research. Like beeswax, earwax is resistant to bacterial contamination. This means that samples can be sent by post to a laboratory. The research also showed that using earwax was more effective than hair as it yields higher percentages of cortisol. In all, the study revealed that the new sampling process could be faster, more comfortable, reliable and cheaper than previous techniques.

What's more, the applications for the device could go beyond measuring cortisol. The team is exploring whether the device could monitor glucose levels for diabetes patients and COVID-19 antibodies.

Dr Herane-Vives has now launched a startup called Trears to bring the product to market. He is supported by UCL Innovation & Enterprise at UCL's entrepreneurship hub, BaseKX.

Trears website