Women & Sex/Gender Differences Research Group

Welcome the New Co-Chairs

​​​​​​​Dr. Sunila Nair
Dr. Sunila Nair

Dr. Sunila Nair is a Program officer in the Integrative Neuroscience Branch of the Division of Neuroscience and Behavior at NIDA. Her research and programmatic interests are directed at elucidating the neurobiological mechanisms that underlie craving and relapse to substance use disorders. Her program portfolio broadly encompasses basic and preclinical research projects targeted at understanding molecular, circuitry and behavioral mechanisms and sex differences in relapse to drug seeking behaviors. Dr. Nair received her bachelor’s degree in medicine and surgery (MBBS) from the University of Bombay, India, following which she obtained a PhD in neuropharmacology at the University of Cincinnati. Prior to joining the Integrative Neuroscience Branch in the Division of Neurobiology and Behavior at NIDA, Dr. Nair was Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington. She directed a research program focused on determining how the functional activity of neurons in the brain, specifically in the limbic, cortical and hypothalamic circuitry is controlled and altered in response to drugs of abuse and non-drug reinforcers. Her research also focused on sex differences in addiction; specifically, on the organizational and activational effects of gonadal hormones, and dimorphism in cell-type specific alterations in neural circuits that drive relapse to drug-seeking behaviors. Dr. Nair’s research program was funded by the NIH, Brain and Behavior Research Institute (NARSAD Young Investigator Award) and the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Research Institute at the University of Washington.

Dr. Keisher Highsmith
Dr. Keisher Highsmith

Dr. Keisher Highsmith is a Scientist/Epidemiologist in the U.S. Public Health Service and has been a public health practitioner for approximately 20 years.  Dr. Highsmith serves as a Program Official in the Services Research Branch of the NIDA Division of Epidemiology, Services and Prevention Research.  In this role, she provides administrative oversight of the HEALing Communities Study which is part of the Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) Trans-NIH initiative and the Rural Opioid Initiative.  She oversees a portfolio that focus on implementation science, policy, access/utilization of services to address OUD and the impact on maternal, women and child health.  Dr. Highsmith Co-Chairs the NIDA Women & Sex/Gender Differences Research Group and serves on the NIDA Research Training Committee. 

Prior to coming to NIH, Dr. Highsmith was a Deputy Director in the HRSA Bureau of Primary Health Care. Dr. Highsmith also served as the Director of Special Initiatives and Program Planning and Evaluation in the Maternal and Child Health Bureau (MCHB). She provided scientific leadership and support for the development and implementation of innovative, multidisciplinary programs in maternal, child and women’s health.  Dr. Highsmith established The Maternal Health Initiative (MHI) which is a comprehensive national strategy to improve women’s health and ensure the quality and safety of care. She also conceptualized, launched, and led The Alliance for Innovation on Maternal Health: Improving Maternal Health and Safety which is a national initiative to reduce maternal morbidity and mortality through quality improvement of patient safety in birthing facilities. Dr. Highsmith earned her Doctorate in Public Health from Morgan State University. 

What We Do

The mission of the Women and Sex/Gender Differences Research Program is to promote the conduct, translation, and dissemination of research on: 1) sex/gender differences in the pharmacology, neurobiology, behavioral and socioeconomic determinants of substance use disorders (SUD), and responses to drugs of abuse; and 2) interactions of SUD risk factors, SUD and drugs of abuse with changes in female physiology and behavior across the lifespan.  A primary part of the mission is to promote the careers of women scientists.  The group meets monthly to discuss research and policy updates, recently published papers, workshops and training opportunities.  WGRG members also serve on the Trans-NIH Coordinating Committee for Research on Women’s Health (CCRWH) to advance research on sex and gender differences and women’s health.

Papers of Interest:

Upcoming Meetings

  • Advancing NIH Research on the Health of Women: A 2021 Conference | Office of Research on Women's Health - October 20, 2021 | 8:30–5:00 P.M. ET.
  • The 2021 NIDA-NIAAA Mini-Convention: Frontiers in Addiction Research. DNB staff, jointly with other NIDA and NIAAA staff, organized the 2021 NIDA-NIAAA Mini-Convention Frontiers in Addiction Research, to be held in conjunction with this year’s Society for Neuroscience meeting. We are now soliciting applications for the Early Career Investigator Showcase (ECIS) award. These applications are due by 9/10/21 at 5pm ET. Also, anyone interested can sign up now to receive notifications by clicking on “SAVE THE DATE” tab, you will be notified when registration opens.
  • Addressing Health Disparities with Neuroscience Seminar Series The Division of Neuroscience and Behavior’s Diversity and Inclusion Group (DNB DIG) hosted the second webinar in their series, Addressing Health Disparities with Neuroscience: Views by Two on July 23, 2021. The seminar, which was titled “Social Environment and the Developing Brain,” featured speakers Kimberly Noble (M.D., Ph.D., Columbia University) and Daniel Hackman (Ph.D., University of Southern California). The seminar drew over 200 attendees from across the US and Canada.  Addressing Health Disparities with Neuroscience is a quarterly seminar series, which brings together two speakers with complementary perspectives and expertise in health disparities/social determinants of health and neuroscience. The speakers share DIG’s goal of advancing a dialogue about how neuroscience can help elucidate mechanisms underlying health disparities in the United States in the area of drug use and addiction. DNB DIG looks forward to continuing this series and plans to hold the next seminar in October 2021.  Information or questions about this seminar series can be sent to DIG_DNB@nida.gov.

Past Meetings

  • Placental Function and Addictive Substances Workshop  Jointly organized by DNB staff and other NIDA and NICHD staff, a workshop titled Placental Function and Addictive Substances was held virtually on July 14. The workshop includes four sessions that covered Clinical Research, Basic Research and Animal Modeling, Genetics and Epigenetics, and Emerging Technologies. The workshop highlighted the current state and discoveries of placenta research in the context of in-utero substance exposure. It also identified barriers and challenges to placenta research, and opportunities and strategies to address these barriers and challenges.
  • The CPDD 2021 Scientific Meeting Virtual Experience  June 22, 2021 - 12:30-1:30pm:  Symposium: Big Data Science Approaches to Identify Novel Behavioral and Biological Mechanisms of Addiction.

Funding Opportunities & Announcements

Selected Funding Announcements in which NIDA participates.

For a complete list, use the NIH Guide- NIDA Sex Gender Grants Query

Three NIDA-funded projects were recent recipients of IMPROVE administrative supplements.

The NIH Implementing a Maternal health and PRegnancy Outcomes Vision for Everyone (IMPROVE) initiative (NOT-OD-20-104) advances maternal mortality, maternal morbidity and health disparities research to reduce pregnancy-related deaths and complications in the United States. Three NIDA grantees have received awards from this initiative.

  • Krista F. Huybrechts, PhD, Brigham and Women’s Hospital,
    Postpartum opioid related mortality in Medicaid patients
    Drug overdose is increasingly recognized as an important source of maternal mortality; the postpartum period appears to be a time of particular vulnerability. Beyond overdose, opioid use disorders may be associated with an increased risk for other causes of maternal mortality, but data are few. In this study,  the team will link data from the nationwide Medicaid Analytic eXtract (MAX) with the National Death Index to examine the frequency, timing, and risk factors for overdose and other opioid use disorder-related postpartum maternal mortality in order to help ensure clinical and policy interventions can be effectively designed to decrease the occurrence of maternal death.
  • Constance Guille, MD, Medical University of South Carolina.
    Reducing Racial Disparities and Maternal Mortality Associated with Untreated Peripartum Substance Use and Mental Health Disorders.
    Maternal mortality in the United States is higher than any other developed country with non-Hispanic black women having the highest rates of maternal deaths. Suicide and drug overdose combined are a leading cause of maternal mortality. In collaboration with community partners, peer-led recovery organizations and peripartum black women the study team will improve upon an existing substance use disorder and mental health screening, treatment and care coordination program necessary to improve the lives of women, their children and families.
  • Amy J Elliot, PhD, Avera McKennan
    The Cumulative Risk of Substance Exposure and Early Life Adversity on Child Health Development and Outcomes
    Poor sleep health in the perinatal period has been found to be associated with several conditions known to increase the risk for maternal health complications and mortality. Additionally, greater risk incidence of poor sleep reports occurs among racial/ethnic minorities. This study will investigate the feasibility of using wearable devices that acquires 2-lead EEG and ECG to monitor sleep during pregnancy and first month after delivery and specifically in an American Indian population at high risk for poor maternal outcome, with the goal of establishing if wearable solutions would provide viable alternatives to sleep lab assessments and more invasive in home monitor solutions.

Training and Career Development Opportunities

Resources of Interest

Related Workgroups

  • CCRWH Working group on Understanding Complex Morbidity (contact Holly Moore at moore@nih.gov)
  • CCRWH Working group on Reproductive Transitions (contact NIHCCRWH NIHCCRWH@od.nih.gov)
  • Maternal Mortality Task Force
  • CCRWH Covid-19 Working group

Other Web Sites of Interest

NIDA WGRG Contacts

Any questions or suggestions regarding the Women and Gender Research Group or to contribute to this website please contact Rita J. Valentino (valentinorj@nida.nih.gov) or Holly Moore (holly.moore@nih.gov)