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Bringing Home More than a Medal

An Olympian’s Battle Following Zika Virus Infection

Co Authors:

Tracie M. Addy
Center for the Integration of Teaching, Learning and Scholarship
Lafayette College

Kathryn A. Phillips
Department of Biological Sciences
Quinnipiac University

Maura O. Stevenson
Department of Biological Sciences
Quinnipiac University


This case study was inspired by the Zika virus outbreak that occurred around the time of the 2016 Olympic Games. Many athletes were fearful of attending because of the link between Zika virus infection and microcephaly in infants. This concern, however, ran contrary to reports suggesting that the risk of athletes and other travelers becoming infected was remarkably low. Jessica, a fictional Olympic equestrian and the main character of the case, was unfortunately very unlucky and contracted Zika virus near the time of the Games. She ended up enduring negative health complications likely as a consequence of the infection.  This case was designed to be implemented in the nervous system unit of a human biology or anatomy and physiology course. The case is also appropriate for microbiology and public health courses.   Students are expected to have foundational knowledge in viral life cycles, and will explore disruptions in neurotransmission as well as abnormal fetal brain development.

  • Describe how viruses (including Zika virus) infect cells.
  • Describe how biological samples can be tested.
  • Design a test and procedure for monitoring athletes for Zika virus infection.
  • Synthesize information to assess whether infection by Zika virus is likely.
  • Describe the basics of neural transmission.
  • Apply knowledge of neural transmission malfunction to Guillain-Barré syndrome.
  • Describe normal brain development.
  • Apply knowledge of normal brain development to nervous system malfunction caused by Zika virus infection.
Keywords: Zika virus; neurotransmission; microcephaly; Guillain-Barre; brain development; microcephaly; myelin sheath; neurotransmitter; infection; Rio; Olympics
Topical Area: N/A
Educational Level: Undergraduate lower division, Undergraduate upper division
Formats: PDF
Type/Method: Directed, Discussion, Interrupted
Language: English
Subject Headings: Biology (General)   Physiology   Medicine (General)   Neuroscience   Microbiology   Public Health   Developmental Biology  
Date Posted: 2/3/2017
Date Modified: N/A
Copyright: Copyright held by the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Please see our usage guidelines, which outline our policy concerning permissible reproduction of this work.

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Supplemental Materials

The supplemental materials below can be used with this case study.

  Click-and-Learn: Virus Explorer hhmi/
Most people have heard of influenza, HIV, and rabies. Zika, human papillomavirus (HPV), and Ebola have recently made headlines. Adenovirus, T7 virus, and tobacco mosaic virus are familiar to researchers and science students. What do these viruses have in common? And how are they different? This "click-and-learn" interactive activity incorporates engaging 3D-models of viruses that students can click on to rotate and view from different angles. In the process, they will learn about the criteria that scientists use to classify viruses, the characteristics of different viruses, and the global prevalence of viral infections. A link to an illustration of the relative sizes of viruses provides an opportunity to discuss scale and units. Produced by HHMI BioInteractive.
  Click-and-Learn: Electrical Activity of Neurons hhmi/
Neurons encode information with electrical signals and transmit that information to other neurons by synapses. The action potential is a very important electrical signal, often called a spike because it typically occurs in less than a second and involves a big voltage change, for a cell, of many tens of millivolts. Produced by HHMI BioInteractive.
  Poster: How Neurons Work hhmi/
A neuron is a specialized cell that transmits information by electrical and chemical signals. A typical neuron has dendrites, a cell body, an axon, and axon terminals. Axon terminals transmit signals and dendrites receive signals. This poster illustrates how synapses work to transmit information from neuron to neuron, and how action potentials transmit electrical signals along the neuron. Produced by HHMI BioInteractive.


The following video(s) are recommended for use in association with this case study.

  Genetically Modified Mosquitoes hhmi/
In this video, scientists with the company Oxitec explain how they engineered mosquitoes to carry a "lethality" gene that prevents mosquito larvae from growing into adults unless they are fed the antibiotic tetracycline. The genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes were first produced in 2002 and bred in the lab to give rise to a colony of mosquitoes all dependent on tetracycline. This antibiotic - the antidote to the lethality gene - is available to the mosquitoes in the lab, but not in the wild. In 2015, male mosquitoes from this GM colony were released in some areas of Brazil to help stop the spread of Zika virus. When male GM-mosquitoes mate with non-GM females in the wild, they pass on the lethality gene to the offspring who, without access to tetracycline, die before growing into adults. Running time: 8:35 min. Produced by HHMI BioInteractive.

  Viral Life Cycle hhmi/
This short animation shows how a virus infects the cell, replicates, and give rise to many progeny viruses. These viruses can then infect many neighboring cells. Running time: 1:08 min. Produced by HHMI BioInteractive.

  Sizing Up the Brain Gene by Gene hhmi/
In this video lecture, Dr. Christopher Walsh discusses the human brain as a complex network of cells whose organization and function are controlled by many genes. By working with patients who have developmental brain disorders, Walsh and his team have begun to identify genes that are required for proper brain development. This research has led to some surprising insights, such as a connection between cell division orientation and cell fate during the development of the cerebral cortex. Running time: 59:32 min. Produced by HHMI BioInteractive.

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