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Short version: I don't see what information on-centre bipolar cells are actually capturing.

Longer:

Actually, the question could be extended to on-centre retinal cells as well, but I'll focus on bipolar cells for now.

On-centre cells will fire when a spot of light hits the centre of their receptive fields and doesn't touch their surround, off-centres are the reverse (light in the centre is inhibitory, surround is excitatory).

Here's an over-simplified illustration that I made, red is hyperpolarized (excited), blue is hypopolarized (inhibited). Let's pretend that horizontal cell effects have already happened, and ignoring overlapping receptive fields for simplicity.

Here's an over-simplified illustration that I made, red is hyperpolarized (excited), blue is hypopolarized (inhibited)

So my question is, if off-centre cells would be useful to highlight contrasts like edges (as I understand it, though eventually edges get detected further down in the complex cells), what are on-centre bipolar cells used for?

From my perspective it looks like they'd be good for single points in light which are small enough to hit the small number of rods that encompass the centre of a receptive field but not hit the surround. But when would this ever be the case? The centre of a receptive field would be incredibly tiny given the large number of rods in say the fovea (though, granted, maybe on-centre cells become more important in the periphery?).

One source: http://thebrain.mcgill.ca/flash/a/a_02/a_02_cl/a_02_cl_vis/a_02_cl_vis.html

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Recent nature neuroscience review on bipolar cells says that bipolar cells are classified into 13 (12 cone bipolar + 1 rod bipolar) different types.

Depending on the polarity of their light response, bipolar cells can be grouped into ON and OFF cells.

Answering your question, what are on bipolar cells used for ? ON bipolar cells predominantly depolarize at light-onset and stratify in the Inner Plexiform layer (ON).

Considering rod - rod bipolar path way: Eyes are sensitive to very low light level. Imagine you are seeing a star during night. As the number of photon reaching retinal layer will be very small. It reaches order of few rod photo receptors (receptive field) & then converge to rod bipolar cell for efficient signal processing. It makes vision at dim light really interesting and promising.

In case with central surround organization, It is one of the classical stimulus study which has been explored further in detail with various complex stimuli. I recommend you to go through The Neuronal Organization of the Retina for more details.

I am absolute beginner in visual neuroscience field. Please correct me if am wrong.

-Sathish

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