A research team from institutions in Japan and Germany has identified a protein in the brain that may lower the risk of Alzheimer's disease, raising hopes of improved prevention and treatment, according to a study published Thursday.

Alzheimer's disease is believed to be triggered when a substance created within brain cells, amyloid beta, leaks out and builds up inside the brain, causing nerve cell death.

In findings published online in Science Translational Medicine, the team from Osaka University and Germany's Max Delbruck Center for Molecular Medicine focused on previous studies into a protein called sorLA, which is normally abundant in the brain.

They discovered that patients with Alzheimer's disease had decreased levels of sorLA, and that low levels of sorLA in mice correlated with increased levels of the amyloid beta protein.

After studying the structure of sorLA, they found that it binds with amyloid beta — indicating that interventions to increase sorLA levels could help reduce the incidence of the disease.

Among mice prone to developing Alzheimer's disease, those that received such intervention were found to have amyloid beta levels 75 percent lower than those that did not undergo the treatment. Cells that were designed to create sorLA also began to bind with amyloid beta.

The team believes that sorLA binds with amyloid beta within the cells and that this process allows the substance to decompose, preventing it from leaking out of the cells.

"We found that the brain has self-defense measures. We want to find out detailed features of sorLA," said Junichi Takagi, a professor of structural biology at Osaka University.