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 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) NIH-wide 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 is a member of multiple NIDA and NIH-wide Committees such as the NIDA Research Training Committee and NIH Maternal Mortality Taskforce. 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 1) promote careers of women scientists and 2) promote the conduct, translation and dissemination of research on:
- Sex/gender differences in the pharmacology, neurobiology, behavioral and socioeconomic determinants of substance use disorders (SUD), and responses to substances of abuse.
- Interactions of SUD risk factors, SUD and substances of abuse with changes in female physiology and behavior across the lifespan.
- Prevention and health services that maximizes the efficient delivery of high-quality, personalized addiction treatment and related services to women across the lifespan.
WGRG Objectives [or Priorities]
- Develop NIDA’s Women’s and Sex/Gender Differences Research Agenda that will advance the science on the causes and consequences of drug use and addiction among women across the lifespan and highlight sex/gender differences.
- Cultivate and strengthen partnerships within NIDA, NIH-wide and beyond.
- Provide an opportunity for early career investigators to present their research, career development experience, and share lessons learned and thoughts on what’s needed to advance the science in the field.
Papers of Interest:
- Precision medicine requires understanding how both sex and gender influence health, Nina S. Stachenfeld, Carolyn M. Mazure, Cell, Volume 185, Issue 10, 2022,
- Intertwined epidemics: progress, gaps, and opportunities to address intimate partner violence and HIV among key populations of women. Nabila El-Bassel, Trena I Mukherjee, Claudia Stoicescu, Laura E Starbird, Jamila K Stockman, Victoria Frye, Louisa Gilbert. Lancet HIV 2022, Published Online February 10, 2022 https://doi.org/10.1016/ S2352-3018(21)00325-8
- Remifentanil self-administration in mice promotes sex-specific prefrontal cortex dysfunction underlying deficits in cognitive flexibility. Anderson EM, Engelhardt A, Demis S, Porath E and Hearing MC. Neuropsychopharmacology (2021) 0:1–12 - The emergence of a hypoactive, but not hyperactive basal state following remifentanil self-administration aligned with deficits in cognitive flexibility as assessed using an operant-based attentional set-shifting task. In females, the hypoactive basal state is driven by a reduction in excitatory synaptic transmission mediated by AMPA-type glutamate receptors. These data define cellular and synaptic mechanisms by which opioids impair prefrontal function and cognitive control; indicating that interventions aimed at targeting opioid-induced adaptations should be tailored based on biological sex.
- Cocaine self-administration induces sex-dependent protein expression in the nucleus accumbens - Communications Biology, July 16, 2021
- The Proceedings of the National Academies of Medicine workshop on Sex Differences in Brain Disorders, Emerging Transcriptomic Evidence: Proceedings of a Workshop (2021) has been released.
- Considering sex as a biological variable will require a global shift in science culture Shansky RM and Murphy AZ; Nature Neuroscience, March 2021
- Dr. Georgia Hodes, Assistant Professor, Virginia Tech School of Neuroscience. "Not feeling up to it? How sex differences in the immune response to depression/stress impact reward",
- "Sex differences in the effect of chronic delivery of the buprenorphine analog BU08028 on heroin relapse and choice in a rat model of opioid maintenance". Dr. Jennifer Bossert, Staff Scientist, NIDA Intramural Program, Baltimore
- Dr. Stephen Mahler, Assistant Professor, Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, University of California Irvine. "Developing Addiction: How Sex, Developmental Experiences, & Drug Use May Impact SUD Vulnerability",
- Dr. Jessica Loweth “Effects of Sex and Estrous Cycle on Incubated Cue-Induced Cocaine Craving”, by
- Read her biosketch). For more information on this meeting, please contact Keisher.Highsmith@nih.gov or Sunila.Nair@nih.gov. “Hormonal regulation of risk-based decision making: implications for decision-making impairments associated with substance use disorders” by Dr. Caitlin Orsini (
- Organization for the Study of Sex Differences (OSSD) Annual Meeting, May 2nd to 5th, 2022
- Technology to Improve Maternal Health, a virtual workshop hosted by NIBIB which will take place on January 18th from 12 – 6:30 PM
- 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.
Funding Opportunities & Announcements
Selected Funding Announcements in which NIDA participates.
- NOT-OD-22-125- IMPROVE Initiative: Implementation Science to Advance Maternal Health and Maternal Health Equity.
- NOT-GM-21-018 - Administrative Supplements for Research on Women’s Health in the IDeA States
- NOT-OD-21-071 - Administrative Supplements and Urgent Competitive Revisions for NIH Grants to Add or Expand Research Focused on Maternal Health, Structural Racism and Discrimination, and COVID-19
- NOT-OD-20-049 Administrative Supplements for Research on Sex/Gender Influences
- NOT-OD-20-048 Research on the Health of Women of Understudied, Underrepresented and Underreported (U3) Populations
- RFA-OD-19-029 Intersection of Sex and Gender Influences on Health and Disease
- PAR-20-237 Community Interventions to Address the Consequences of the COVID-19 Pandemic among Health Disparity and Vulnerable Populations (R01- Clinical Trial Optional)
- PAR-20-180 Identifying Innovative Mechanisms or Interventions that Target Multimorbidity and Its Consequences (R01 Clinical Trial Optional)
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-21-071) 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.
- Natacha DeGenna, PhD, University of Pittsburgh at Pittsburgh
Teen Mothers? Prenatal Cannabis Use and Co-Use with Tobacco
This study will investigate the current patterns and levels of prenatal cannabis use and of co-use with tobacco in teens seeking prenatal care. The investigators will use data from multiple sources to determine which pregnant teens use cannabis and tobacco, how much they use, and evaluate the effects of these exposures on infant development. Correctly understanding the context of pregnant teens’ cannabis and tobacco use and the effects of prenatal exposures is important and will provide crucial information for health care providers and social service
- Heidi Preis, PhD, State University New York Stony Brook
Evaluation and validation of a novel instrument to assess the psychosocial and drug history backgrounds of pregnant women with or without Opioid Use Disorder
This project will follow the two large Stony Brook COVID-19 Pregnancy Experiences (SB-COPE) Study cohorts through pregnancy and into their first year postpartum, and for some, into a next pregnancy. The investigators will identify Social Determinants of Health, Structural Racism and Discrimination, and their stress-related effects on maternal physical and mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Study findings will inform prevention and interventions to mitigate the detrimental effects of maternal stress and devastating effects of health inequities among pregnant persons.
- David Bradford, PhD, University of Georgia
The Effect of Medical Cannabis Laws on Health Care Use in Insured Populations with Pain-S1
This study will examine the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on postpartum women’s pain-related healthcare utilization, with specific focus on the prescription of opioid analgesics at hospital discharge after delivery and the subsequent six-month postpartum period. In addition, the investigators will build on preliminary evidence that there is substitution away from opioid analgesic prescriptions in states that implement recreational and medical cannabis laws. We will provide the first longitudinal, patient-level analysis of the relationship between these laws and pain-related healthcare utilization for postpartum women during COVID-19.
Training and Career Development Opportunities
- NIDA Training Opportunities
- NIH Office of Research on Women’s Health (ORWH) Career Development and Education
- Educational Materials on Integrating Sex and Gender into Biomedical Research
Resources of Interest
- CCRWH Working group on Understanding Complex Morbidity (contact Holly Moore at email@example.com)
- 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
- NIH Office of Research on Women’s Health
- NIH Sex and Gender Minority Research Office (SGRMO)
- White House Council on Women and Girls (CWG)
- Sex as a Biological Variable: A Primer | Office of Research on Women's Health (nih.gov)
NIDA WGRG Contacts
- NIDA colleagues interested in joining the NIDA Women and Gender Research Group please contact Sunila Nair (Sunila.firstname.lastname@example.org) or Keisher Highsmith (email@example.com).
- Any questions or suggestions regarding the Women and Gender Research Group or to contribute to this website please contact Rita J. Valentino (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Holly Moore (email@example.com)