Brenda Penninx VU

Coordinating researcher/PI

Title(s)Professor of Psychiatry and Epidemiology
First nameBrenda
InitialsW.J.H.
Last namePenninx
FTE0.6 fte/year for 10 years
Brief summary of research over last 5 years / academic profile

Brenda Penninx (1970, PhD) is a world-leader in mental health research. She is full professor and vice-chair at the psychiatry department of Amsterdam UMC, location VUmc, where she directs the research group comprising of 8 full professors, 15 Associate/Assistant Professors and >70 PhD students. Penninx is widely acknowledged for her cross-disciplinary approach to mental health research integrating psychiatry, psychology, neuroimaging, genomics, psychoneuroendocrinology, sociology and behavioural medicine. Early in her career Penninx realized that large, well-phenotyped longitudinal studies are crucial to understand how genetic vulnerability and life experiences interplay in determining a person’s risk to develop and maintain stress-related mental disorders. This was the stimulus for founding the multi-site, longitudinal Netherlands Study of Depression and Anxiety (www.nesda.nl), an invaluable research resource for psychiatric epidemiology and biological and clinical psychiatry (which so far yielded >68 PhD-theses and >500 publications). She recently co-initiated the MARIO cohort that follows high-risk children and young adults in their stress and psychopathology patterns during life (www.mario-study.nl) and is PI on a national project on antidepressant use (OPERA, www.opera-project.nl). Her work is exemplary in transforming and enhancing the value of longitudinal cohort studies to better understand the multi-nature origin and longitudinal trajectories of stress-related disorders.

Penninx developed -omics research methodology for large-scale studies in psychiatry. Her group conducted the first large-scale genome wide association study (Molecular Psychiatry 2009) and integrated this with e.g. environmental and neuroendocrinology data. She embedded real-world ambulatory assessments of behaviour and emotions in her NESDA and MARIO studies, and is site PI of the RADAR-MDD project that tracks 600 depressed patients using diverse ambulatory assessments (www.radar-cns.edu). Penninx’s work on immunometabolic depression and the interplay between inflammation, the autonomic nervous system and the HPA-axis stress systems has been very influential in moving the field towards a more integral understanding of the aetiology of affective disorders. To translate her scientific work to practical applications in healthcare she is working with various public and private partners on biomarkers for depression. Insights into heterogeneity helped to pave the way towards designing new personalised interventions. Funded through prestigious national or EU-grants Penninx also tests novel lifestyle (e.g. exercise and nutritional) interventions in ongoing studies (www.motar.nl ; www.moodfood-vu.eu).

In terms of leadership Penninx has been able to weld a highly successful research group. With her relatively young age (50) Penninx shows that different roles (work, family) can be combined in such a way that outstanding scientific performance is possible. She is a role model for young (female) scientists: 90% of her past (n=51) and present (n=14) PhD-students are <35 years of age and 70% is female. As member of the KNAW Young Academy she became involved in science policy and continues this with management positions in the Amsterdam Neuroscience and Amsterdam Public Health Research Institutes.

International visibility, activities, prizes, scholarships etc.
  • Brenda Penninx has published extensively, mostly in high-ranking international journals. For many years in row, she belongs to the highest cited 1st percentile of researchers (Thomson Reuters).
  • She has first- or senior-authored papers in e.g. Archives of General Psychiatry, JAMA (Psychiatry), Molecular Psychiatry, BMC Medicine and Lancet Psychiatry confirming the impact of mental health on somatic and public health outcomes across the life span. On these topics, she has regularly written invited authoritative reviews for e.g. BMC Medicine (2013), Lancet Psychiatry (2015, 2017) and Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews (2016). She recently first-authored a Lancet seminar paper on Anxiety disorders, and was commissioner and co-author on the Lancet paper by the World Psychiatric Association – Lancet commission on depression. Penninx is currently on the Editorial Board of Journal of Affective Disorder (Editor-in-Chief of special issue) and of Lancet Psychiatry.
  • Penninx is frequently invited to present at international seminars or conferences (>150 presentations) and has given many keynote lectures for prominent international societies, Royal College of Psychiatrists, International Association for the Study of Obesity, German Society of Psychiatry and the International Society of Affective Disorders. In 2019, she was visiting honorary professor at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany.
  • She has many ongoing international collaborations such as with the Psychiatric Genomics and the ENIGMA neuroimaging consortia involving over >50 international groups. She is member of the European Psychiatric Association, the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology, the Society of Biological Psychiatry, the International Society of Psychoneuroendocrinology and the American Psychosomatic Medicine Association. She is member of Scientific Advisory Board of the Dutch Depression Society. In addition, she served on national and international review panels (e.g. NWO committees, Dutch Health Council, German Research Network on Psychiatric Disease, Danish Lundbeck Research Foundation, Swiss Research Foundation).
  • Penninx’s research is well funded by grants from the Dutch Scientific Organization (e.g. for NESDA, OPERA and MARIO projects), NIH (various (epi)genetics projects) and the EU (e.g. FP7-MC-Hetodep, H2020-MC-GLOID, FP7-Moodfood, FP7-ENGAGE, H2020-IMI-PRISM, H2020-IMI-RADAR-CNS, H2020-Lifebrain, H2020-To_Aition, H2020-EarlyCause, H2020-RESPOND). Overall research funding totals >25 M€.
  • She received prestigious career grants: KNAW fellowship grant 1997 and a VIDI-grant in 2006 and a VICI-grant in 2010. She received fellowship awards from the Niels Stensen Sichting, the Brookdale Foundation (New York) and the Gerontological Society of America. Penninx was KNAW Young Academy member and has been elected as member of the KNAW (Royal Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences) in 2016. In 2020, she was elected member of the European Academy of Sciences and she also received the Joannes Juda Groen Senior Award for excellence in interdisciplinary research.
  • She is currently executive board member of European College of Neuropsychopharmacology and the KNAW medical, biomedical and health domain, and she chairs the KNAW Council of Medical Sciences.
5 key output/publications coordinating researcher / PI
  1. Gerritsen L, Milaneschi Y, Vinkers CH, van Hemert AM, van Velzen L, Schmaal L, Penninx BW. HPA axis genes and their interaction with childhood maltreatment are related to cortisol levels and stress-related phenotypes. Neuropsychopharmacology 2017;42:2446-55.
  2. Penninx BW, Pine D, Holmes E, Reif A. Anxiety Disorder. Lancet 2021, in press.
  3. Penninx BW, Milaneschi Y, Lamers F, Vogelzangs N. Understanding the somatic consequences of depression: biological mechanisms and the role of depression symptom profile. BMC Medicine 2013;11:129.
  4. Hu MX, Lamers F, de Geus EJ, Penninx BW. Differential Autonomic Nervous System activity in depression and anxiety during stress depending on type of stressor. Psychosomatic Medicine 2016;78:562-72.
  5. Milaneschi Y, Simmons WK, van Rossum EFC, Penninx BW. Depression and obesity: evidence of shared biological mechanisms. Molecular Psychiatry 2019;24:18-33.