Distribution-free mediation analysis for nonlinear models with confounding.
Recently, researchers have used a potential-outcome framework to estimate causally interpretable direct and indirect effects of an intervention or exposure on an outcome. One approach to causal-mediation analysis uses the so-called mediation formula to estimate the natural direct and indirect effects. This approach generalizes the classical mediation estimators and allows for arbitrary distributions for the outcome variable and mediator. A limitation of the standard (parametric) mediation formula approach is that it requires a specified mediator regression model and distribution; such a model may be difficult to construct and may not be of primary interest. To address this limitation, we propose a new method for causal-mediation analysis that uses the empirical distribution function, thereby avoiding parametric distribution assumptions for the mediator. To adjust for confounders of the exposure-mediator and exposure-outcome relationships, inverse-probability weighting is incorporated based on a supplementary model of the probability of exposure. This method, which yields the estimates of the natural direct and indirect effects for a specified reference group, is applied to data from a cohort study of dental caries in very-low-birth-weight adolescents to investigate the oral-hygiene index as a possible mediator. Simulation studies show low bias in the estimation of direct and indirect effects in a variety of distribution scenarios, whereas the standard mediation formula approach can be considerably biased when the distribution of the mediator is incorrectly specified.