Drug discovery typically was initially a chemistry endeavor. Biological drugs, made from biological processes, was the next breakthrough. GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE:GSK) wants to see new treatments can be found in yet another way – by targeting electrical signals in the body.

To encourage the effort, the company said on Wednesday it is offering a $1 million prize and funding up to 40 researchers working in external laboratories. GSK unveiled the initiative in the journal Nature.

“At GlaxoSmithKline and in academia, we are confident that this field will deliver real medicines, and we are mobilising resources for this journey,” GSK head of bioelectronics research Kristoffer Famm and colleagues wrote in the journal.

This emerging “electroceuticals” field has also grabbed the attention of a number of academic research groups which are already mapping neural circuits in animals and humans, and working on potential interventions for testing in clinical trials. The concept involves using the electrical impulses of the body’s nervous system to address various diseases. Several academic centers are already involved in the research including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Pennsylvania and the Feinstein Institute of Medical Research.

Moncef Slauoui, chairman of GSK research and development, told Reuters that GSK believes bioelectrics will be medicine’s next big thing, comparable to the rise of biological drugs that have developed in the last 15 years arising from biotechnology advances.

“This is our vision for the next 10 to 20 years,” he told Reuters. “In the future, a big chunk of R&D will be doing bioelectronics.”

Using electricity as a treatment is not completely new, Reuters notes. Electrical devices have been used for years as heart pacemakers. More recently, electrical stimulation has been applied to treat Parkinson’s disease, severe depression and some neurological disorders, and to improve bladder control.

GSK wants to use electric signals to target specific cells at within neural circuits. The company believes that could lead to novel nanoscale implants to coax insulin from cells to treat diabetes or correct muscle imbalances in lung diseases or regulate food intake in obesity. If scientists can figure out the complex neural circuitry of the brain, the approach could also someday be used to treat brain disorders.

GSK plans to host a global forum in December to bring together research leaders in the field who will collectively identify one key hurdle in the field. The research group able to overcome that hurdle will claim the $1 million prize.

London-based GSK operates its U.S. headquarters in Research Triangle Park.