Leaders in Women’s Health - Dr. Gillian Einstein

Dr. Gillian Einstein

Wilfred and Joyce Posluns Chair in Women's Brain Health and Aging. Associate Professor, Department of Psychology and Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto, Former Director and Founder, Collaborative Graduate Program in Women’s Health, University of Toronto

1a. What women’s health issue do you work in?

My lab (The Einstein Lab) studies how the structure and function of the brain is influenced by the context of people’s lives, especially sex and gender. These influences include hormones and genes, as well as culture, social environment and personal life experiences. In turn, these factors can influence our health and successful aging. For our research, we recruit women, men and gender-diverse individuals to explore how their brains and behaviour react and respond when they experience sex-specific health conditions, medical treatments or social practices. We currently investigate outcomes on the brain, as well as on individuals’ feminine/masculine identities. Our goal in creating this new knowledge is to promote better science, precision medicine, and healthier communities through a whole body approach. Current projects in my lab include: cognition in women with the BRCA1/2 mutations and the effect of ovarian removal; trans cognition; pain in elderly Indian women; stress in gendered work; and the effects on the central nervous system of female genital circumcision/mutilation/cutting.

b. Can you tell us a little about your greatest successes and challenges?

My work in neuroscience has spanned the fields of vision (both cortical and retinal physiology and anatomy), Alzheimer’s disease, memory, and the effects of estrogens on mood, pain, sleep, and memory. I am committed to understanding the role of estrogens in establishing sex differences in both in brain and behavior. This is reflected in my current funding and leadership roles: inaugural Wilfred and Joyce Posluns Chair in Women's Brain Health and Aging; Treasurer (2006-2009) and Program Chair (2014) for Organization for the Study of Sex Differences (OSSD); Advisory Board Chair of the Institute of Gender and Health, Canadian Institutes of Health Research (2013-2016); and as Visiting Professor of Neuroscience and Gender Medicine at Linköping University, Sweden (2014-current). I have edited and annotated a volume on sex differences in the brain called, “Sex and the Brain” (MIT Press, 2007), teach both graduate and undergraduate courses on sex differences, deliver key notes on the topic as well as just recently participated in the Office for Research on Women’s Health’s Workshop in the inclusion of sex differences in research, “Methods and Techniques for Integrating the Biological Variable, “Sex” in Preclinical Research” (October 20, 2014). My own current research is on the effects of estrogen deprivation on young women’s learning and memory includes neuropsychological testing, gene analysis, hormone measures, and brain imaging. With this work, my lab has developed special proficiency in recruiting and retaining clinical populations who are young, healthy, and at the busiest stages of their lives.

Greatest challenges:

1. Convincing people that women’s health is more important than ever. It needs to be funded and nourished. It is a path to innovation in the health care system because knowledge about the processes leading to chronic disease in women will lead to innovation in that area for everyone.

2. Getting the scientific community to differentiate between sex and gender and to take gender seriously in the design even of preclinical, animal studies.

3. Encouraging colleagues to separate the issue of women’s health from the problem of fewer women than men in science. The latter is important but not the same as the former.

2. Why are you passionate about women’s health?

I am passionate about women’s health because we are ignorant about so much of women’s health beyond reproductive health. For example, aside from dosing, we do not know how a given drug might affect women differently than men. We also do not know whether drugs being developed for dementia treatment are more or less successful in women than in men. That is because most drugs are not developed using female as well as male animal models and thus, go untested in human women. Women’s biologies are not well understood and by studying them we can get a fuller picture of the variation across the human species.

3. What is your favorite de-stressing activity?

A nice dinner with my partner or with friends and when it’s feasible, swimming in Georgian Bay.

4. What is your vision for women’s health equity in Ontario?

I envision funding and resources for studying the women of Ontario and an explicit commitment to the importance of women’s health. The foresight of the partners of the Wilfred and Joyce Posluns Chair in Women’s Brain Health and Aging is an excellent start in that direction. However, we also need a public health commitment to understanding the health of women independently of infants and children in order to provide evidence as to how women’s non-reproductive roles affect their health. There is so much good science on sex differences in Ontario; I would like to see that turned into clinical guidelines.

5. What resources, tools or research would you like to share with us?

Stanford Gendered Innovations

CIHR Institute of Gender and Health training modules

CIHR Institute of Gender and Health webinars