Lugo di Ravenna, Italy - Gianni Golfera can remember his first flight as though it were yesterday - the colour of the plane, the radio messages, sitting on his mother's knee. He was only six months old.

Gifted with a startlingly accurate memory, 24-year-old Golfera spent his adolescence training his mind and despite never seeking the limelight his skill has seen him perform under television spotlights and grace countless magazine covers.

"I can remember the names of 100 people just introduced to me, a string of 15 000 numbers and recite a speech that I've just heard," he says, wearing one of his seven identical trademark black suits.

Scientists have latched onto his filmic mind, hoping it will reveal the secrets of the memory gene, and thereby get one step closer to managing memory-loss diseases like Alzheimer's.

'Memory is a problem of order, not space'

Yet for researchers, the really remarkable thing about this dark-haired man from a sleepy town in northern Italy is the fact that his ability to access huge tomes of recorded information is also shared by his father and grandfather.

All three are pilots who leave in-flight maps and manuals at home and remain slightly bemused by everyone else's surprise at their talents.

"Our family philosophy is not to consider ourselves a phenomenon," said Gianni's father, 45-year-old Andrea Golfera. "We might be pilots, but we keep our feet firmly on the ground."

Researchers, however, are already flying high at the prospect of being able to study the brains of three generations with the rare gift of photographic memory.

"I am convinced there is a genetic component. By studying these more evolved memories we will be able to identify the genes that are involved in memory," said neuro-scientist Antonio Malgaroli of Milan's San Raffaele institute.

'When people die, for me it is as if they just changed address'

Golfera is excited by the research, hoping that perhaps it will allow him to be remembered long into the future.

"I'll be delighted for them to do all the tests they like on me. I hope that by studying my DNA they will discover a key that I cannot find myself," he said.

The DNA in genes transcribes the recipe for proteins which make everything from muscle tissue to brain synapses.

A deeper understanding of the genes that govern memory - its acquisition, development and loss - could open the door to understanding how we recall and forget, why we remember and where memories are stored.

"Our goal is to map the changes that occur when the brain remembers. Once we have identified the molecule involved, the mechanism at the level of proteins coded by DNA, we can search for it in the Golfera family," Malgaroli said.

The Golferas always took their recall ability for granted.

"When you remember, it's something 100 percent natural. It is only when you realise that other people don't do the same that you realise it is something special," explained Andrea.

Grandfather Bartolomeo, 82, was a star pilot during World War 2 whose lightning memory put him ahead of the enemy.

The youngest Golfera grew up fascinated by how quickly everyone around him forgot, whilst he continued to remember.

Vestiges of his childhood still linger in his adult life - such as his continued belief in mythical figures like Father Christmas. "It is like I was told yesterday and I have no reason to disbelieve," he said.

Golfera was never top of the class, infuriating teachers at school by refusing to take notes.

Instead he set about translating from Latin a Renaissance Italian text by Giordano Bruno on the art of memory, memorising all the books that Bruno would have read in the process and developing his own technique.

"Every idea has a cognitive weight. To remember, you have to make things weightless by translating them into a picture," Golfera said. "Then you associate images and chain all the ideas together so they interact."

When the mind remembers, electrical impulses pass through the brain, like switching on light bulbs. The more emotion and sensory stimulation is involved in the experience, the more light bulbs are illuminated and the more vivid the memory.

Golfera developed his own method which enhances the way the brain naturally processes information - linking sounds, colours, emotions and tastes to ideas, numbers and objects.

To help him, Golfera has memorised thousands of familiar places and it is in these virtual rooms that he stores memories.

"Memory is a problem of order, not space. You have to know where to look for what you have remembered."

Malgaroli agrees: "The memory system is an infinite container. What you remember is not stored in a very precise way, it is continually being re-organised."

Yet there is a darker side to having a limitless memory.

"I have problems conceiving of time and space because all my memories are instantly available to me," Gianni said, "Death is a strange concept to me because my memories don't fade. When people die, for me it is as if they just changed address."

And forget about indulging in rosy-hued remembrances of nostalgia. Golfera remembers the good, the bad and the ugly with equal force.

"I'd like to be able to manage my memories and control my dreams," he said. "I think of the mind as a parallel universe and mine just keeps on expanding. I doubt I'll ever fill it."

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