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Professor Philip (Phil) Cowen, BSc, MB, BS, MD, FRCPsych, is an MRC Clinical Scientist and member of the MRC’s External Scientific Staff, Professor of Psychopharmacology at the University of Oxford, and honorary consultant psychiatrist at Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust. He is recognised internationally for his outstanding research into mood disorders and their treatment, and has also made major contributions to psychopharmacology via teaching, clinical practice, and research governance.

2014 bap lifetime achievement award for professor philip cowen

Phil trained in medicine at University College Hospital, London, and then in psychiatry at King’s College Hospital. He moved to Oxford in 1979 to work in the MRC Unit of Clinical Pharmacology under David Grahame-Smith and Richard Green, and his research career rapidly took off. His achievements and potential were recognised in 1983 when he was appointed MRC Clinical Scientist, a post which he still holds today – the only psychiatrist to do so and testimony to the sustained excellence and productivity of his research. He was elected to a personal chair in Psychopharmacology in 1997. He has been honoured with many awards, including a NARSAD Distinguished Investigator Award (2000), and election to Fellowships of the Academy of Medical Sciences (2001) and ECNP (2012).


Phil’s academic focus has been on the neurobiology and psychopharmacology of mood disorders, especially unipolar depression. He is perhaps best known for his many studies on the contribution of the 5-HT system, but his research has extended to a range of other topics including emotional processing, glutamate, and inflammation, and encompasses many approaches, from functional imaging to clinical trials – in fact, Phil is active across the whole translational spectrum. Highlights of his research include:

  • Discovering inverse agonism at benzodiazepine receptors (with David Nutt and Hilary Little)
  • Showing that tryptophan depletion causes a rapid relapse of depressive symptoms
  • Demonstrating that dieting affects 5-HT functioning, and that this may contribute to the onset of eating disorders after dieting (with Chris Fairburn and Guy Goodwin)
  • Using PET to show down-regulation of 5-HT1A receptors in depression, and its persistence after recovery (with Paul Grasby)
  • Identifying neurobiological abnormalities in young people at risk of depression
  • Demonstrating (with Catherine Harmer and Guy Goodwin) that antidepressants alter emotional processing, leading to a new cognitive-psychopharmacological model, and providing a useful tool for assessment of potential new antidepressants in development.

Phil has published over 500 scientific papers, including several in Nature, The Lancet, and the Archives of General Psychiatry – as well as 25 in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. His h-index is 64. Other contributions to psychopharmacology:

  • Phil has served on various committees, including two stints on the MRC Neurosciences and Mental Health Board, the awards committee of ECNP, the BAP Bipolar Disorder and Depression guidelines groups, and the NICE panel on generalized anxiety disorder.
  • Phil has been a regular attender at, and contributor to, BAP meetings and educational programs, and was on Council from 1988-1992.
  • Phil has mentored many psychiatrists and neuroscientists. Several have gone on to become senior academics, including Ian Anderson, Zubin Bhagwagar, Karl Friston, Sasha Gartside, Paul Grasby,and Allan Young.
  • Phil has been senior author of the past two editions of the Shorter Oxford Textbook of Psychiatry.

In addition to Phil’s many academic contributions, he is an exceptional clinician, able not only to apply effectively his encyclopaedic knowledge of psychopharmacology, but to do so with great wisdom and compassion. As well as combining these skills to the benefit of his own patients, he is in great demand (and is always willing) to provide sage advice to colleagues in Oxford and beyond. He is a shining example of an academic clinician, and epitomises all that the BAP stands for. All this is done against a backdrop of understatement, modesty, and a waspish sense of humour. Although he remains as research active as ever, his achievements to date mean that he is fully deserving of the 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award.

Paul Harrison
February 2014