A pair of monkeys have learned to control a virtual arm using only their brainwaves, in developments scientists hope will be able to benefit severely paralysed people.

The two rhesus primates at the Duke University Centre for Neuroengineering in North Carolina were taught to direct the arm on a computer screen without moving any of their own limbs and were able to receive feedback information that enabled that to differentiate between textures.

They controlled the arm to explore the surface of three objects on the screen, which appeared identical, but would feel different by transmitting tiny electrical signals back to their brains.

If the monkeys correctly identified a specific object, they were rewarded with fruit juice.

Professor Miguel Nicholls, who led the study, said it could provide hope that in the future, seriously disabled patients could regain some movement and physical sensations.

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