Mediation and moderation of treatment effects in randomised controlled trials of complex interventions

Stat Methods Med Res. 2010 Jun;19(3):237-70. doi: 10.1177/0962280209105014. Epub 2009 Jul 16.


Complex intervention trials should be able to answer both pragmatic and explanatory questions in order to test the theories motivating the intervention and help understand the underlying nature of the clinical problem being tested. Key to this is the estimation of direct effects of treatment and indirect effects acting through intermediate variables which are measured post-randomisation. Using psychological treatment trials as an example of complex interventions, we review statistical methods which crucially evaluate both direct and indirect effects in the presence of hidden confounding between mediator and outcome. We review the historical literature on mediation and moderation of treatment effects. We introduce two methods from within the existing causal inference literature, principal stratification and structural mean models, and demonstrate how these can be applied in a mediation context before discussing approaches and assumptions necessary for attaining identifiability of key parameters of the basic causal model. Assuming that there is modification by baseline covariates of the effect of treatment (i.e. randomisation) on the mediator (i.e. covariate by treatment interactions), but no direct effect on the outcome of these treatment by covariate interactions leads to the use of instrumental variable methods. We describe how moderation can occur through post-randomisation variables, and extend the principal stratification approach to multiple group methods with explanatory models nested within the principal strata. We illustrate the new methodology with motivating examples of randomised trials from the mental health literature.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biostatistics
  • Depression / therapy
  • Humans
  • Mental Health
  • Models, Statistical
  • Outcome Assessment, Health Care / statistics & numerical data
  • Psychotherapy
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic / statistics & numerical data*
  • Risk Reduction Behavior
  • Schizophrenia / therapy
  • Suicide Prevention
  • Treatment Outcome